LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Narrative Therapy ft. David Newman

When you’re asked questions like “What’s your story?”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Today let’s take time to realise the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and others, while talking about our lives.

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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

We’re in conversation with Narrative Therapist, David Newman. He has an independent counselling practice through Sydney Narrative Therapy, works at a psychiatric unit for young people, and is a faculty member of the Adelaide based Dulwich centre, one of the homes of narrative therapy and community work.

Hey, David!

David – Hi, Valerie. It’s nice to be here.

Valerie – Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Let’s start with you telling us what narrative therapy is and how it relates to and aids our mental health.

David –Well, in short Narrative Therapy is an approach to therapy and community work. It’s something that social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses will do in their work, when they’re doing counselling work or therapeutic work. But if I just go back just a tiny little bit, Narrative Therapy found some of its understandings through the cognitive revolution and the idea that we are meaning-making and thinking people, the human race, and that one of the ways that we make sense of things or make meaning is through the lens of a narrative, that in order to be able to make sense of things, we need to have the lens and it’s through the lens of a narrative. So that’s where some of the ideas and the impetus of Narrative Therapy came from and these go back in time to probably about the 1950s in terms of what was happening in psychological theory at the time. 

Now Narrative Therapy is an idea that you might say comes from a post-structuralist understanding that is about the plurality of life and about the inconsistencies and the contradictions in life and in identity and one way that that’s taken up in narrative practice is to say that life is always multi-storied, so as a narrative practitioner, we’d always be assuming that someone is not just the problem story, they’re not just a bundle of despair or anxiety or panic, but there’s also other glimpses of life that are outside of those stories and the narrative practitioner is wanting to breathe life into those glimpses, when people aren’t being able to cope or take action in life. 

Life is multi-storied but Narrative Therapy also contextualizes it. Identity is seen as a contextual and social achievement. In other words, we are really interested in looking at what happens around people so you might call it a sociological approach or analysis to the shaping of stories. What that means in terms of Narrative Therapy practices is that broadly speaking, the first thing you might say about Narrative Therapy is that it looks at the context of people’s lives and not the problem with people, so it does what we call “externalizing the problem”. Externalizing the problem is imagining and speaking or writing or drawing, or whatever it might be, as if the problem stories are separate from people. So people are in a relationship to despair, people are in a relationship to a suicidal experience, people are in a  relationship to addiction or conflict, or whatever the problem might be. That’s called externalizing and that’s a big part of the conversation. 

The second thing to say about Narrative Therapy practice would be that when we find an aspect of life outside of the externalised problem story, we really want to ask a lot of questions and be very curious and listen out for stories that can be built on, like stories of coping, stories of skills of living.

Valerie – That’s really interesting. You look at it from a perspective of knowing that life is multi-storied and that you don’t just look at the problems but you try to look at it in context to your life and then try to work around that.

David – Yeah, that’s right.

Valerie –  Personally, what is it that got you interested in narrative therapy?

David – So Narrative Therapy, for me, is not just critique. Narrative Therapy is certainly critique and is responding to some of the politics of psychology and counselling and therapy and community work at the time, in the 80s and late 80s but it wasn’t just critique, it was also practice. So seeing in these ideas a strong engagement with power, a strong engagement with issues of culture and a non-pathologizing stance but there were full of very very elegant practices. Very elegant and very effective practices. So it was both a critique mixed with practice and I was really drawn to that.

The other thing that drew me to Narrative Therapy was that it is very non-individualistic. It was about connecting people and joining people around similar experiences including joining people with their own communities. So therapy or community work wasn’t sort of cut off from life so much, the world of the person was brought into therapeutic process much more than I’d seen in other approaches.

Finally, I was really drawn to the way that Narrative Therapy engaged with personal story, the personal story of the therapist. Around the time in the 70s and 80s, there was quite a lot of pathologizing of what was considered sometimes problematic motive for why people would get engaged with therapy – that they had something often that would be spoken of as an unmet need and in Narrative Therapy, there was an engagement with personal story that would be acknowledging and honoring a personal story as shaping of purposes that you brought to the work – that because you know something about how hard life can get as a therapist, you want to bring that kind of purpose to the work because maybe if you know a little but about what it’s like to have a parent who has an alcohol problem, you’ll bring that determination to do something about it and have skills around what you can do around those experiences, that you can bring to the work. So it’s engaging with their personal story in a way that was acknowledging and honoring, rather than pathologizing and dismissing.

Valerie –  It’s beautiful that would help somebody with their personal problems and personal story in a way that you engage with them as opposed to stigmatizing it, and then you help them through that in a way that you’re also concerned because you can connect it to something from your own personal life.

David – Yeah. So for instance, one practice of Narrative Therapy would be to let people know, let couples or families or individuals know that you have been taken somewhere else in your life as a result of the conversation, you have other ideas for your life as a result of the conversation or as a result of the work. You know that as a result of hearing how determined this person is to listen better to their child, that you will take that with you too in your parenting or something like that. So yes, there are particular practices where we let people know how we’ve been moved somewhere else as a result of the conversation. Typically in Narrative Therapy, this is an aspect of re-telling someone’s story, it’s honoring or acknowledging re-telling a story when we tell them how someone’s story has taken us.

Valerie –  Yes. David, what age groups have you found narrative therapy impact the most and what are the different ways through which people can tell their stories? 

David – I would say that because Narrative Therapy really engages with meaning-making, that’s what it’s interested in and the meaning-making lens as I said earlier, that is privileged in narrative practices is storytelling, I would say anybody at any age can take part in these conversations and in this work. I would say for children who are very young, there might be some limitations in terms of language but I would say even from as young as 3 or 4, I think, children can use language to describe their experience in ways that we can shape a therapeutic conversation of sorts. I think the limitations to the age is not so much the age of someone, it’s the limitations of the workup and the extent to which they’re bringing particular practices and ways of talking that are resonant for the person, they’re a part of the person’s culture, they’re a part of the person’s way of doing things, or style. 

In terms of how stories can be told, I think it can be not just about the spoken word, and quite often therapists will ask people to draw a picture of their worries or a picture of depression. That’s a way that we can engage with meaning-making or some sort of communication. There’s also ways that therapists have been exploring music, and that’s another option. There has been a huge explosion of using metaphors as well in Narrative Therapy, so we bring a metaphor that might be resonant, often the metaphor of the tree of life and how people might use a tree as a metaphor to speak about their lives – the roots are where you’ve come from, etc. and that’s another way that we can tell stories. This is another more recent development over the last ten years of how metaphors are being richly engaged in telling stories as it has lots of advantages including that people can speak indirectly about experiences which can help enormously when people have had a traumatic experience and it’s very hard to speak about it directly.

Valerie – David, can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Narrative Therapy session? How does a narrative therapist understand people and help them through their problems?

David – I think something that’s reasonably common to many approaches to therapy and community work is that the narrative therapist is really interested in the experience of someone. They really want to get a rich sense of the experience of someone. Narrative Therapy is very interested in using and reflecting back the language that someone uses. In fact, Narrative Therapy would take a position against re-wording what someone says and representing it through a professional expert kind of language or psychiatric language. It would be about trying to use the language that people bring. Someone might speak about way out thoughts or dire thoughts as opposed to for instance the psychiatric term that gets imposed sometimes as “suicidal ideation”. 

A Narrative Therapist is listening out for a problem story and how they are being described, and the effects of the problem story. So if someone did speak about dire thoughts, we would be asking about the effects of the dire thoughts, what the dire thoughts might be saying, what gives the dire thoughts power,  the context through which the dire thoughts might be getting a lot of power but we understand, because life is multi-storied, we understand that there are always glimpses of life, often they’re in the shadows of the problem story but there are always glimpses of life outside of the problem story and the narrative therapist is always listening out for those glimpses and trying to take note of them, listening carefully for them. 

So we’re listening for the problem story and we’re listening for glimpses outside of the problem story, which in Narrative Therapy, we call alternative stories or preferred stories, sometimes they’re also referred to as second storis or subjugated stories, and we want to breathe life into those other stories and help them come out of the shadows of the problem story.

Valerie –  Is it possible for people to find their stories through the stories of others’ lives, or while playing a role in someone else’s life?

David – I have been very interested in the idea of people finding their stories through the stories of others’. For the last eight or so years, I’ve been working part time at a psychiatric unit for young people in Sydney, and I do many many groups. In these groups, one thing I’ve noticed is that people will often find their own language and their own experience, when they hear someone else’s experience. I might be doing a round in a group and the opening question might be “What’s something that’s rough for you?”. Someone might say “I really don’t know” and then we’ll go through a few people answering what they think is rough for them and then all of a sudden someone who didn’t know how to describe just how rough things are and how to describe the turmoil will find words for it. They’ll find words because they realise that there’s an overlap of an experience or story with someone else, or the opposite – they’ll know that that story or experience does not speak to them, and in that sense, they’ve got a sense of what does speak to them. They have a sense of a little bit of what their story is

This concept of people finding their stories from the stories of others’, I’ve found incredibly helpful in work because it means I put much less pressure on people to speak because they’ll speak once they hear something either of their own experiences reflected in others or not reflected in others. I also use this very much with the written word. These alternative or preferred stories, in Narrative Therapy, there’s a long tradition of writing down these stories so people can have them when they go, or that they can donate these stories to other people who are going down a similar path. We share these stories later or documents in the group so that people get a sense of their own stories through the stories that have been written down. So that’s one thing that I’ve found very very helpful.

Valerie – David, thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy. There is so much that we got to learn from you today, getting a better insight into what Narrative Therapy is. We learnt that it’s about meaning making and making sense of things through the lens of a narrative. We learnt that life is always multi-storied and you look at the glimpses of life outside your problems. That is such a beautiful thing, that you connect with experiences, you connect people with experiences and you can also relate to other people’s experiences to form your own narrative and find your story through that. Thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy today.

David – My pleasure, Valerie. I hope it was of use.

Valerie – Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Drama Therapy ft. Anshuma Kshetrapal

The ancient Greeks used drama for catharsis. Theater is known to help tap into emotions, build self esteem, and reduce feelings of isolation. Let’s find out how Drama Therapy can aid our mental health.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Drama and Movement Psychotherapist. She is the founder of The Color of Grey Cells, the co-founder of The Arts Therapists CoLab, and a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy.

Welcome, Anshuma!

Anshuma- Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you for being here. Could you start with telling us what Drama Therapy is and how it supports mental wellness?

Anshuma-  Drama therapy, like you said, is ancient in nature. It’s simply put – the idea of creating alternative ways to look at our therapeutic processes. Therapy typically would want you to delve deeper into unconscious elements and the arts are a wonderful way of doing that. The arts perpetually have a way of bringing out our unconscious aspects. So when you pick a pose or when you pick a character to work with or when you pick a story, what guides your motivation to pick those things? We look at that more closely. In a typical session, we would go into role play, enactment, stories, and do all kinds of kooky things to understand what your unconscious self wants to communicate to you. 

Valerie- Right. If someone is seeking conventional psychotherapy, how do they know when they should try drama therapy?

Anshuma- Well, like I said, it’s about the unconscious language. The unconscious mind doesn’t speak to us in Hindi, English or any other language. It speaks to us in emotions. Now when we’re trying to use articulation, there will inevitably be a time when our conscious thought around that experience will run out and we won’t know how to go forward from that moment. A lot of times, clients who come to Drama Therapy come after having had a lot of looping experiences in talk therapy. So then when they come to drama therapy, it’s a way of their unconscious elements speaking. They don’t have to own anything, the beautiful bit of Drama Therapy is that there’s so much distance you can create between you and your emotions that it feels very safe, because all you’re doing is playing. If I don’t have to own my anger but that angry King really wants to behead people, in that way it doesn’t feel threatening to go through these very complex and nuanced emotions.

Valerie-  I know that when you were talking to us earlier, you said that you do a lot of kooky things and you start playing these weird games and stuff like that so how do you know what works best on what person? When somebody comes to you, how do you know what they will resonate with best?

Anshuma-  Well, it’s a very complex issue in terms of there’s no ‘one size fits all’. The idea is that the therapist is trained in how to look at the unconscious elements of what’s going on, and we’re not directive at all. It’s a very indirect form of psychotherapy. We always ask and there’s a lot of power sharing in the room. I’m not your expert, you are the expert on your mental health. You come in, there are a lot of things to choose from. What would you like to explore today? So it’s not led by me and in that sense, what we do is we create something called a ‘play space’, and that play space is an area where the client chooses what they would like to explore. We give a lot of options and it’s a very gentle build-up. It’s not like you come in and we’re like “Let’s do this”. You can talk about things for a long time, we discover what some core areas of work are, and then we explore those certain things using different modalities. From the same concept of anger, I can make a character out of it, I can do some sock puppet out of it, I can do sand play, I can do role enactment, there’s so many things. 

Valerie-  Supposing you’ve got somebody who is very uptight and like you said, they tried psychotherapy and they felt like they were going through a loop that they couldn’t break, even through their words and they come to you for Drama Therapy but they don’t really know what they want to do because they are uptight as a person and they don’t really know how to express themselves. How do therapists understand the issue someone’s trying to express through Drama and how do you make them express it through Drama?

Anshuma- That’s the beauty of it. For me, the more difficult clients to work with are the ones who come wanting a lot of drama because then you have to unlearn. Artists make the most difficult clients because they have a certain idea of how drama should look – interesting, masala to the story, wanting to enact something full-scale. And in creating the product, they forget about the process. Actually, Drama Therapy is very process oriented. It’s not anything to do with “drama” as it looks on the stage. It’s just an inner expression. If you’re just breathing, I’ll just work with you with that. Simple movements like breath. Let’s expand on that. Let’s expand on a small movement. Is there a dialogue that you want to say today? So it becomes very subtle and there’s no pressure on the client to enact or show me big movements. 

When you ask how we help them express, we just use lots of tools and we put across those tools and help them make choices. For example, one of my favourite things to do right in the beginning is that I take a lot of small toys and I put it in front of them and ask them what represents them today, and they just pick up an object and tell me an imaginary story, it doesn’t need to be their life story because I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m just here to make you feel better.

Valerie-  Can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Drama Therapy session?

Anshuma-  A typical Drama Therapy session would begin with you doing some focus exercises, you come in, we do some breathing work. Then we start to warm up the body, we move about a little bit where I ask you to think about the themes you want to explore today, then we start with “bridging in”, which is when you start to build on those themes. 

A session I just had today before this was about somebody who’s been locked in the Pandemic but feeling homeless because they don’t feel at home in their own house. She wanted to explore the concept of home and so we played a little game about what does home mean? And how does home represent itself in her body, and through that we were able to come to the idea of home being a place of nurturance, home being a place of conflict. So our main activity then included her making a safe space in her own home, so she went and got objects that made her feel safe, picked a corner of her room and she created a little sanctuary for herself, and then we bridged out of it, we came back to talking about some of the conflicts that exist in her home, and then she drew about it a little bit saying “I just want to put it out of my body, I’ve been carrying this for too long”. And then we did some songs and just got her back to the present moment. 

Valerie-  It’s actually really interesting that you start with really really small things and you can use that and build it up into something beautiful and help somebody express themselves and understand what they’ve been feeling. 

A – Right? Because it’s not about them performing, it’s about them expressing. That’s a very clear difference we make right in the beginning.

Valerie-  What was it about Drama Therapy that drove you to take it up as a profession? 

Anshuma-  I was a journalist initially and I was doing feature stories and I realised that I think that the impact of the fourth estate wasn’t really cutting it for me. I wanted a very clear one to one ability to be able to make an impact because it felt like I would go there to scoop a story and then come out and not be able to take any responsibility for what happens next. I did a couple of jobs in journalism and I took off nine months and I didn’t have a bachelors in psychology so I studied all of psychology that I could from bachelors and straight away did my first masters in psycho-social clinical studies, beyond which I started to realise that just this idea of talking was not cutting it. 

It felt like there was more to be expressed, especially when we’re talking about impact, if we could express in a group, it becomes even more interesting. So I started studying how group therapy is emerging and it seemed at the time it was only rehab or one to one in India. So I stepped out and studied how the arts are helpful because it helped me in my personal life as well, just to express myself better and tell my story, and so I went and researched that and ended up falling in love with it.  

Valerie-  You said that when you were doing journalism, you felt like you were scooping up stories but not taking responsibility, how do you feel that’s changed for you when you became a psychotherapist?

Anshuma-  I think the idea that I have a feedback loop, that I work with my client over and over again every week and I go back and it feels less exploitative. That’s my personal experience. When I was doing journalism, it felt like it was about the story rather than the individual. And the story does perhaps have a larger impact but at the same time, now when I’m going to this person week after week and seeing how they’re changing and how their lives are enhanced or better, it’s a very different experience of feeling validated with my own work.

Valerie-  Right. Could you talk to us about how the infrastructure and education around Drama Therapy in India has progressed with time?

Anshuma-  Valerie, you’ve asked me a question where I don’t know where to begin but it feels like we’re at a very different place but I’m going to start from when I first came back. My second masters was in Drama and Movement Therapy Sesame from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and I had gotten jobs there but I wanted to come back because even though there was more demand there, the need was felt here. It felt like I could perhaps make a difference in the field here and it was new. As soon as I came back, I was fortunate enough to be here at the right time because mental health as a conversation was picking up but till date, I get a lot of skepticism. I get a lot of “Do you make your clients dance?”, “Which hospital is your next performance in?” So because of that, I felt the need to stretch myself into advocacy work because it felt like there’s a larger conversation that we were not having. 

That’s where the Indian Association for Dance Movement Therapy and all the teaching began. Currently I design programs and I approach universities and we set up diploma programs. We set up a diploma program in Pune, there is a diploma program in expressive arts therapy run by my very able colleagues in Mumbai. There are several certification programs which are very ethical in nature. Alongside that, we do have to develop the field in terms of ethics because one of the causes that’s close to my heart is the social justice angle of mental health in India and it feels like there is so much malpractice because there is no licensure. We are looking to develop a code of ethics, we are looking to get licenses into the country at various levels and really try to grow the field from the ground up. 

While I’m involved in infrastructure, I can tell you that from then to now, it is a transformation. We have so many people who are interested, so many practitioners who are doing a lot of ethical work and a lot of clients who are benefitting, but we’re still looking for our government to get involved. The budget this time, for example, for mental health was dismal. It feels like the government will take its own time coming around but at least through platforms like yours, through Instagram, through various social media, people are really invested in this topic now so in that way, it has helped up. Private infrastructure is willing to invest but publicly, we don’t have much support yet.

Valerie-  Yes. It’s great to seeing that despite learning abroad, you can back here because there was a need for awareness, in terms of the fact that people were so uninformed that they had all kinds of preconceived notions about what Drama Therapy or alternative therapy would be, and you’ve actually started curating courses that would help change that and help make people more educated and aware. 

Anshuma- Yeah and yet there are courses that people are just starting in their basements, without trained faculty because they simply think drama and therapy means you feel good after doing drama, but that is precisely where vulnerable clients can really get duked and so do vulnerable students. I always urge the student population to really study the course they’re going for because these are complex and nuanced therapies, even though they come under the purview of alternative therapy, you’re still working with an individual’s mental health and so the responsibility on you is pretty great and these short-term courses in basements may be cheap and they may be able to provide cheap certification but what will your end product be and how far can you go in the field if you go to those kind of courses?

Valerie-  Very true. Being a psychotherapist, you help people deal with problems related to their mental health and it can be a pretty arduous job. As you said, you take on responsibility and while it can be a beautiful thing to see somebody transform, it can also be very very taxing. How do you care for your mental health amidst all of this? 

Anshuma-  Well, I’ve been asked that question during the Pandemic and I’ve wondered about it currently because typically my ways of taking care of myself, and avoiding burnout, which is very frequent in mental health work is to travel and to step away from my familiar surroundings altogether. Since that was not an option during the Pandemic, I’ve had to develop other fundamental things but there are clear guidelines, if you go to your therapist, I urge all clients to ask their therapists if they’re in supervision. Are you in personal work yourself? Because that’s the thing that really keeps us intact. 

I make sure that I take my supervision seriously. Every fortnight, I make sure that I call my supervisor and she adds a third perspective to my work. I have been in personal therapy for the last eleven years and make no qualms in talking about it because it feels like it’s important that my clients also know that I’m also engaged in working with myself. Alongside that, the arts are a wonderful way of self care. I do drama and movement on a daily basis for other people but for myself as well, there’s nothing better for me than to get my hands dirty with some clay or do some atwork, some painting, or even some drama and movement whenever I can.

Valerie-  So what’s your favorite form of art that plays a therapeutic role in your life?

Anshuma-  For me, it’s been clay. There’s that physical element of putting your energy into clay, and what I end up doing is I use the clay to make those little toys that I was talking about earlier. I fashion those toys out of the clay so it becomes my therapeutic activity but it also comes back into the work when I offer those toys as a starting point to my clients. It really is paying for itself in some way!

Valerie-  Anshuma, it’s been absolutely beautiful talking to you. There’s so much we got to learn from you. We got to learn that Drama Therapy is more about the journey and it’s about expressing yourself through what you do as opposed to thinking of it as a performance, we’ve learnt just how important it is for therapists as well to take their mental health seriously, to be in supervision and to let other people know that it’s important for them to take care of their mental health as well. Also, one thing that I can take away from you is that you said that it’s beautiful for you to feel that validation when you see your clients come to you every single time and you can see them healing and becoming better because of your work. Thank you so much for talking to us today and making us aware of what Drama Therapy is and what it means to you as well.

Anshuma- Thank you so much, Valerie, for the opportunity and for all the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for doing this wonderful summary at the end, that way I also learnt from what I was rambling on about. 

Valerie-  Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Sound Therapy ft. Suzy Nairn

At some point in our lives, a lot of us may have turned to music to make ourselves feel better, but did you know that mere sounds can have an impact on our mental health as well?


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Suzy Nairn, a singer, sound therapist and educator. She’s the founder of Soundsphere and the co-founder of ANSU School of Sound. She is also a member of the board of the International Therapeutic Sound Association. 

Hey, Suzy!

Suzy-  Hi, hello!

Valerie- It’s good to have you here today.

Suzy-  It’s good to be here. Lovely to be invited, I’m very keen to talk about Sound Therapy and how it can help people.

Valerie- Sure. Suzy, by profession, you are a Sound Therapist. You’re also a singer and a songwriter. What is the difference between sound and music, and between the alternative therapies of the same?

Suzy-  Yes, absolutely. When we’re working with music, we tend to be working a lot with rhythm, melody, lyrics, words, etc. When we’re working in Sound Therapy, we might bring in a little bit of rhythm and melody but actually, it’s a very much more open soundscape so we would use toys or undulating pulses and that can help bring a person into a relaxed state whereas singing and song-writing involves singing and writing songs, people are moving, people are engaged, they’re listening and maybe singing along in their head or tapping their foot. Within a sound journey, they tend to be resting in Sound Therapy. 

So the difference as well between Music Therapy and Sound Therapy is that Music Therapy is much more of a two-way process, so a music therapist would be talking and speaking with a client, where they would be using instruments to help express emotions that someone may not be able to express in words so it’s more of a communication tool whereas Sound Therapy is very much a treatment. The person is lying down, eyes closed, under a cozy blanket, etc. and they are receiving the sound. Although they are listening, they may actually drift off into a dream-like state. They are not required to be actively engaged, so it’s much more like a giving from the Sound Therapy, and the person is receiving it.  

Valerie- Yeah, it is quite interesting to know that on one hand when you have music, it’s something that’s more active, where you have participation from the person and Sound Therapy on the other hand is more on the basis of receiving sound and in terms of that, could you tell us what the therapeutic effects of sound are and how it relates to mental health?

Suzy-  Yes, so continuing on from that, when we were actually consciously working with the brainwave states, in music, our brainwaves are in the natural state of beta, where we’re active and engaged and there’s four main brainwave states that we’re all in at different times throughout the day, the beta state is what we’re in right now, where we’re talking, listening, and engaged whereas when we’re working with Sound Therapy, we’re using sounds and tones and different effects to slow the brainwaves down so that the person reaches a natural state of relaxation and it’s sometimes a state that people can’t reach themselves, especially if they’re worrying or anxious, if they’ve got very over-active minds or constant chronic pain. All of these things make it very difficult for a person to access a state of relaxation. 

What happens is when they are gently lulled into this natural brainwave state which we call the alpha-theta border, which is a bit like the moment when you’re just dropping off to sleep at night or you’ve just woken up and you haven’t really fully got onto your mind and what’s happening in the day, you’re in a sort of unknown physical state, almost. When a person reaches that natural brainwave state, we aim to keep them in that a little bit longer. Normally, it’s a brief moment while we’re there and they’ve shown that when people are in that state, the body actually undergoes their own physical self-repair so it’ll balance hormones, it’ll release tension that’s been held in the physical body, and all of these benefits can help people lessen their worries, help them gain a sense of peace and also which then helps them be more able to cope with life’s challenges, and we’ve seen that it can bring about pain relief in people, they might not need as much pain medication if they’ve got a chronic illness. 

I’ve got clients who have had very high blood pressure and after a number of sessions, that has completely stabilized. So there are all these different effects that are going on. It’s also the sounds and the way we weave these sounds. They also soothe the nervous system, it very much works with the vagus nerve, which is the biggest nerve in the body, and the vagus nerve is connected to our ears and travels all the way down through the body and connects with all the internal organs of the body, so when we’re giving that somebody and they’re receiving it, it’s soothing. It can soothe their frazzled nerves and wash away some of that tension. When people are tense and worried and are holding themselves tight, it helps the body to naturally start to relax and that process in itself can just be so beneficial for people. 

A lot of people say to me, after they’ve had a session, especially after the group ones, that they have a brilliant sleep. It’s amazing, the power of how it can really help people, and it does require skillful playing and that’s why I’m a real advocate for training in Sound Therapy because it’s really easy to just buy the instrument. Just like music, you can teach yourself to a point by watching and listening to other people but there’s actually a whole process of being a therapist, which is not something that you cannot just teach yourself. That is something that needs to be taught because sometimes, people can have really big emotional releases and you need to be able to handle that as a therapist.  Yeah, so there are a lot of ways that it helps people.

Valerie-  Right. Suzy, when you were telling us about this, you did talk about how sound helps release tension and help people reach a point where they relax to a point where they probably couldn’t by themselves and you talked about how it’s important to have a therapist with you so that if there are emotional releases, you have somebody who can help facilitate that. Is talk therapy at all a part of Sound Therapy? What exactly did it mean when you talked about “emotional releases”?

Suzy-  As a therapist, I will have a consultation with a client and whatever comes up in that is relevant to the person. We’re not necessarily trying to dig around but counselling and talk therapy does have a place, however in a one to one situation, we would have a consultation and discuss what the main issues for the person are, and then sometimes that process itself is very healing in itself and then they receive the sound. When we’re working on a one to one level, we’re working with the chakra system where we scan the body, the energetic system of the body, and there’s a bit of intuition as well, as to where the sounds need to be. We might even place instruments on the body, we might put the singing bowls on the body and ease tension in the body. 

So there’s a balance within talk therapy and within the sound in a treatment situation. When it’s a group situation, it’s a more general “sound journey” or a “sound bath”, so it’s not tailored specifically to one person, it’s more general but it might have a theme. So it might be for relaxation or it might be for energizing, or it may be connected to a specific season of the year, like we’re just coming into spring here in Scotland so I was just doing one last night connected to Spring and that was lovely! So we’ve taken some of those nice themes and then focused on a general soundscape that is designed around that.

Valerie-  Right. So, what was the inspiration behind founding Soundsphere and ANSU School of Sound?

Suzy-  Well, I first heard about Sound Therapy around about thirty years ago, a friend gave me a book on healing through sound and I was at the time interested in music but it was just a hobby of mine, and I liked singing, and this book sort of opened my eyes to the potential that there was in something such as Sound Therapy, and it wasn’t until around 2006, that became the time that I chose to train and that was because a close family member actually got very ill and I wanted to help her and lots of things like mainstream medicine weren’t able to support her in a more holistic way. They would give her the medicines but there was no other support, so I started to do more research. 

I’d done a little workshop a few years previous to that and I started to use my voice with her, I was doing relaxation sessions and she really responded so well that I decided to then go and train, and I did a two year practitioner level training course, and through that time I worked with my niece very closely and gave her a lot of sessions and it really helped her. Sadly, she did die because she was seriously ill, and it was a very very tragic situation but what I did see from it was how much benefit she got out of the Sound Therapy treatment and that after that time and when I completed my training, I felt so inspired to help others and since then, I have worked with terminal clients as well as people with stress or people who want relaxation, or even prevention – you can sort of prevent illnesses coming around. 

So that was why I started Soundsphere and I started running workshops and sound journeys. And then a number of years later, I’d been working with a colleague who trained together with me, Anthar Kharana, and we wanted to train more people because people kept coming to us asking if it could help children with autism, adults with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s and many situations, and I felt strongly that yes, it can but there’s only two of us here and at that time, Sound Therapy was still breaking through over here and it wasn’t that well known, it’s become a lot more well known and a lot of people training in it now, a lot of people offering sessions. So we started an annual course to be able to train more people to spread the word, and to be out there spreading the sound, so we’ve got students who are graduates now, who are working within mental health or with addiction groups or adding it into yoga classes, or many different things so that’s what we wanted to do. 

We wanted to see it in schools and hospitals and we’ve got a new school program that’s running this year and some of the schools in Scotland where we’re actually going to be teaching the children how to play some of the singing bowls and give some support to the teachers as well because obviously, we’re in this very stressful situation at the moment, so we want to offer some therapeutic sound but it’s also under some sort of music connection, so that the children will also learn to play these instruments because technically, they are quite simple to play but there is a bit of skill within that and extra techniques and it’s to do with how you blend the instruments and when you use different instruments. That’s where the skill and training comes in.

Valerie-  Yes. Well, thank you for sharing an experience so personal to you and actually letting us know that despite it being a tragic experience, you took that to help other people when you saw how it benefited your niece, and that it became just as important for you to make other people aware of the benefits of Sound Therapy and founded a school that trains people on how they can help do the same for other people.

Suzy-  Yeah, thank you. Absolutely, I get feedback from people all the time about how it really helps them with their anxiety and their headaches, it can also be really supportive when people are going through major transformations in their life, whether that’s a house-move or the end of a relationship, or they’re grieving, it can really help them in all sorts of different situations. There’s really so many benefits and it works. So when people ask if it can help with health issues, yes, it can sort of help everything because you’re working beneath the symptoms, you’re working underneath and behind and you’re not getting involved in the outer world situation such as a marriage breakup or the illness, you’re working behind that to support them and give them that sense of peace, to be able to cope with these things.

Valerie- Yes.  Personally, what is it about sound that brings you peace?

Suzy-  Well, I just love the different sounds and it gives me a lot of peace to actually know that it’s helping a lot of people and for my own personal experience, when I’m delivering sound or working with instruments, it’s a really creative process. It’s that feeling of getting in the zone. I actually get a lot of benefit out of it as well. I feel calmer afterwards and when you’ve been creative and when you’ve produced something, it’s quite a rewarding feeling in that way. 

I’m very conscious when I’m creating sound, I’m very engaged and I’m not going into the relaxed state, and I’m very intuitive as well, sort of creating and guiding and weaving the sounds together so I think all of that that gives me a sense of peace, and just helping and seeing the benefits that people feel. A lot of people have an experience of weightlessness, or they see colours or they get images, clarity and insight and a lot of different benefits that come from it. I’m sure that I get some of those benefits as well!

Valerie-  Well, Suzy it’s been really great talking to you and more than understanding what Sound Therapy is, it’s been inspiring to know your story and the fact that it’s so important of you to look at how other people have benefitted from sound therapy and what you provide them with, and that’s what helps you be peaceful and that’s what keeps you happy. Thank you so much for talking to us and giving us an insight into what Sound Therapy is, how it’s used. Thank you, Suzy.

Suzy- You’re welcome, Valerie. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be part of your podcast series.

To know more about Suzy Nairn’s work, head over to:

ANSU School of Sound

Soundsphere

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Music Therapy ft. Dr. Katrina McFerra‪n‬

They say “where words fail, music speaks.” Today let’s explore the power of music and the impact it can have on our mental health.


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Valerie-  Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Let’s introduce ourselves to Music Therapy with Dr. Katrina McFerran, a Registered Music Therapist and a Professor of Music Therapy at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is an international expert on the topic of music, music therapy and adolescents.

Welcome, Dr. Katrina!

Dr. Katrina- Hi, Valerie. Lovely to meet you. 

Valerie-  First off, could you explain to us what music therapy is and how it’s different from listening to music in order to calm down or lighten our mood?

Dr. Katrina- Yeah. Well, I think that the term or the idea of Music Therapy has meant many things over many centuries but at the moment, we have taken it as a description of professional practice- of a career that you go to University and study the theory and methods and the research and then you’re able to be qualified to practice. It has become one of the many allied health professions in my country and in many countries around the world where people work in hospitals alongside speech pathologists and occupational therapists and physiotherapists and psychologists, and therefore that requires training about different diseases, disorders and understanding within that, how music can be helpful. 

So normally what people do is that they’re intuitive. You know the kinds of music that you love and you select it, with or without thinking about it, to make yourself feel better and that’s often really successful, whereas Music Therapy is about really identifying exactly what the purpose of using music would be for therapeutic purposes, what benefits there might be and making a plan saying if that’s what you’re trying to achieve, here’s a way that we could use music that’s based on research and evidence, that will help you achieve that goal and so therefore it’s more like a treatment planning model rather than just an intuitive process that you undertake for yourself.

Valerie-   Personally, what does music mean to you? What got you interested in the field of music therapy?

Dr. Katrina- Well, as you said in the beginning, my specialization within Music Therapy is on adolescent identity and the ways that young people use music as a way of exploring their emotions and expressing something about their personality and about their hopes and aspirations for their lives and the ways that different types of music can say something about who we are. So not surprisingly, I became interested in music therapy myself because that was the role that music played for me in my own youth. As a classical musician, I grew up on the edge of the desert in a small town in Australia and there wasn’t a lot of classical musicians in that town and so it was a way of marking out my territory in saying that this is the kind of person I am, this is my aesthetic and cultural value, my discipline and my focus. But of course, what music means to me, I would say is entirely personal and different to what it might mean to you, for example. I don’t know if you want to tell us what music means to you?

Valerie-  So for me, if I had to think about it, I don’t think of myself as someone who’s very artistic, right? So if I’m ever low or if I ever need to think about something, I always have a song that I’m constantly humming just so that I calm down and it’s always my go to. I don’t sing very well but it’s still something I choose to do over any other thing I’d rather be doing. 

Dr. Katrina- Perfect. So the difference between music that we use for our wellbeing and music as a kind of high culture performance, which has to be perfect, I think is really important. Interestingly enough, I teach a lot of music students at University and they often have the worst relationships with music in a way because for them it’s associated with pressure and perfection, whereas the rest of us, who are not music performers, are able to have this nurturing relationship with music where we can just hum and it can just soothe us during difficult times because we’re not putting pressure on it to earn us an income or to do other things. 

Valerie-  Right. You did say that one of your major fields of expertise is adolescent mental health. How have you found that music therapy impacts the mental health of adolescents?  

Dr. Katrina- Well, I think the way that you just described your relationship with music is actually typical of many young people and you know, young people get old and our relationships with music don’t really change for people generally but the passion and the time commitment really starts during adolescence and often during more challenging times in our lives, we turn back to music again in that same way. 

To my interest in how music can be used by adolescents has been really informed by the practice, I worked in children’s hospitals and in palliative care, we had people who were really mentally or physically ill and I learnt from them that they use music in really different ways- for some people it was to soothe and calm, for other people it was to get energy, for other people it was to express their emotions and try to understand them and almost help get rid of something so that they were done in a way that didn’t hurt anybody. 

So I noticed that there were very different ways that teenagers in particular use music depending on what else is happening in their lives and I started to think that it’s not so much about music doing something to you as a teenager, it’s not that you choose this particular kind of music and it will calm you. It’s much more about how teenagers choose the music of their preference and they use it to do whatever they want. So you could use the same piece of music to help you go to sleep that you might also use to do your homework or use to travel in public transport to distract yourself from how boring it is. The way that teenagers are so passionate about music helped me understand that they could use music in any way they wanted, towards their mental health. 

What I also learnt is that when we’re really depressed and ruminating on an issue, that we can also use music to make ourselves feel worse. We can accompany really negative thoughts with songs that reinforce those thoughts and we don’t feel better at the end, we feel even more angry. We might use music to accompany substance use or drug taking, which might be fun for some people but could be associated with a really unhealthy habit of addiction for other people. I started to realise that not only did everybody use music in different ways but sometimes it was really helpful and other times it was really unhelpful. So my role as a music therapist is often to touch base with young people and say “So how is that going for you? Is it working? Can we strengthen the way that you’re using music and make it even more powerful or do we need to have a look and see if it’s actually backfiring and making you feel worse, then let’s talk about that and if there are other decisions that you could make.” 

Valerie-  It’s really interesting that while talking about how music can really help somebody, you also brought out that it has a potential downside to it which is honestly not something I thought about! I did hear a few of my friends telling me they were upset and so I listened to songs that made me even sadder but I did not know that it had such a potential downside to it as well so thank you for bringing that up.

Dr. Katrina- You’re so welcome and did you know that sometimes, it’s so great to feel sad. You need to feel sad and you need to cry and music is the perfect friend for that. But it’s when you make it a habit, what I discovered is when young people get into habits, initially they hoped they would feel better afterwards because they got to vent, we need to vent out our emotions but if you notice over time that you actually feel worse, it actually deepens your relationship with negative emotions and you don’t feel better, that’s a really qualitative difference. Instinctively, we do think it helps, because normally it does. Just not always. 

Valerie-  True. You were telling us about the positives of music and you also said that it’s important that you touch base with the people you interact with when it comes to your music therapy sessions. For someone who does not have much knowledge about music, how does a music therapy session start? How does a music therapist understand them and help them through their problems, through music?

Dr. Katrina- That’s a great question. As I said at the beginning, music therapists work in a kind of treatment model- which is you begin at an assessment of what people’s needs are and what their musical interests are, and then you make a plan, you undertake the plan and then you evaluate it. So an assessment can be formal or informal but for me, when I work with teenagers at least in Australia, they usually are a little bit hesitant about what this music therapy thing is, so I usually start pretty casually and ask them what kind of music they like, because the basis of our relationship is going to be their music. 

It is an assessment which is casually offered and it allows the young person to know that I’m interested in their music and that I’m not here to tell them to listen to my music or to comment on their music or any of those things that they’re usually worried about. So then once I know what kind of music they’re interested in, then I need to know about what they need and why they’re in therapy. Often if I’m working in a hospital then I might  already know from all of their notes about what illness they’ve got, what they’re struggling with and I may have been referred in to address anxiety or insomnia, for example and if I don’t know, then I need to talk to the young person about that and then from there, I’ll make suggestions. 

So if it’s a young person who’s struggling with depression and they love listening to hip-hop music, to choose the most common and most popular music, then I have a basis. I know they’re struggling with depression and I’d say “okay, do you feel like it would be helpful to potentially write a song where you can express to me what’s happening to you and how you’re feeling about yourself right now?”. I’d say that I could produce some beats and we can choose those beats together and then we could write the words and maybe record it or something. I might offer that as an option. So you love hip-hop and you’re feeling depressed. Let’s have a look at that with music. 

If they’re feeling so depressed that they really don’t want to do anything so active, then I’ll ask them to start off by playing me a song, one of their favourite songs or something that can tell me about how they’re travelling, letting their music speak to me so that I start to get an understanding of where they’re at and I might be able to be helpful to them. So I might suggest writing songs or I might suggest listening to songs, or if I’m working in an institution where somebody’s so depressed that they’re just struggling to even get out of bed and they’re hospitalized, then I might not go with words at all. I might just pass somebody a drum and I might have a guitar or an instrument and I might say “let’s play”. Together we might just improvise and be together in music and I would analyse the way that they’re playing and amplify certain things that they do and they don’t have to be a musician, it could be a guitar they’re just fiddling with, and then we analyse that as you might do in psychoanalysis. So it’s like “Okay, this is what I’m hearing. Is this how you’re feeling right now?” and so we might be able to talk about it after but not leading with talking for someone who’s not really in that kind of a state. So you can hear how it’s really different depending on where I meet somebody, what they need, what kind of music they like, and what they’re willing to do, at the end of the day.

Valerie-  Obviously because each person differs, you have to have different approaches but all of them really sound very interesting in terms of the fact that you make music with them, regardless of whether they’re with lyrics or without, you really sit down and make music with them and analyse what they’re feeling through that one bit.

Dr. Katrina- It’s so fun. It’s a great job.

Valerie-  It sounds like a lot of fun!

So Dr. Katrina, why don’t you tell us what the therapeutic benefits of music are? Does music play a therapeutic role in your personal life?

Dr. Katrina-  Music does play a therapeutic role in my life and there is no doubt that at times of struggle or pain, that I turn to music and I listen more during those times. I play more during those moments in my life whereas when everything’s going about just fine, then I have music run in the background and it certainly brings me pleasure but I don’t feel so drawn to it, so it varies and I think that is true of most people. 

I think that the therapeutic benefits of music are tied up with that too because music is so vast and so magnificent and so much potential is inherent in music. It can go in so many directions that the therapeutic benefits can be anything, but they can’t be everything. If I was to talk to you right now and find out what your problems were, we couldn’t fix all of them through music. We would have to go okay, which one of those are we going to focus on today? And then we can work out which kind of music would be best for that. It’s not a drug, it doesn’t just come into your system and make you happy. It’s really, music has what you might call potentials that are therapeutic and the fact that we choose to use music can achieve joy, peace, love, connectedness, expression, authenticity and so many things, but it doesn’t happen at once. 

If you sing in a choir, for you it might be the pleasure of the sounds of harmonies all around you, for another person it might just be great to be out of the house and doing something which isn’t domestic duties, and for another person it might be about the conversations that happen before and after choir because they’re lonely. We can all be sharing in one the experience and music can be affording us different therapeutic benefits depending on what we need. 

Valerie-  Dr. Katrina, thank you so much for agreeing to do this and talking to us about music therapy. Without a doubt, it’s been one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had and there’s been so much to learn from what you’ve talked to us about today. We’ve learnt that music means different things to each and every individual even if you’re all part of the same thing, and that you can express yourself and say stuff about who you are through music. And while it may not solve each problem, you can work through whatever you’re facing through music and I think that is a beautiful note to end this on and I just want to thank you for talking to us about so much and allowing us to learn so much from you today.

Dr. Katrina-  I want to thank you for asking and being interested, I think it’s a great topic to talk about.

Valerie-  Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Dance Therapy ft. Tarana Khatri

There’s a song titled “Dance your troubles away”. Interesting, isn’t it? How dance is considered a means to help put our minds at ease. 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today let’s talk about dance therapy with Tarana Khatri, a Dance Movement Psychotherapist. She is the co-founder of Synchrony, a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy, and part of the Cambridge Medical Centre, Dubai.  She encourages exploration and learning about the self through creative and reflective interactions.

Hey, Tarana!

Tarana-  Hello! Hi, Valerie.

Valerie- How are you today?

Tarana- I’m doing good, how are you doing?

Valerie- I’m great as well. 

Tarana- Great.

Valerie- Tarana, why don’t you start by telling us how dance and movement relate to our mental health? 

Tarana– I think it’s important to note that in Dance and Movement Psychotherapy, movement is the medium but the instrument that we’re working on is the body. So, if you were to ask me how the body plays a role in mental health, that’s something that I can clarify for you. We believe that the body and mind are interconnected and our bodies collect, process and store information just like our minds. If we had an experience, just the way your mind collects it, processes it and stores it as a memory, your body does that as well. So if at a later stage you’re trying to understand that experience or the pattern it creates, it’s important to understand it both, from the experience of the body as well as the experience of the mind. That’s where Dance Movement Psychotherapy plays a role in allowing us to explore that experience of the body and relate it to the experience of the mind, which eventually helps us understand our mental health and how we can make it more efficient.

Valerie- Can you explain to us what Dance Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?

Tarana- Yes, ofcourse. Dance Movement Psychotherapy is the therapeutic role of movement to work towards cognitive, emotional and social wellbeing, The role of movement can vary. For example, it could be really working with engagement of the body in lots of dance-like movement patterns. It could be working with breath. So it’s this idea that the level of body engagement can vary but it uses the body in different capacities to understand our personal behavior patterns and emotional patterns and how we can develop coping patterns that work for our environment. 

I think the most important thing to note is that this word “dance” comes everywhere. Most often, there is a misconception of what Dance Movement Psychotherapy is in terms of quoting dance to feel better or “I don’t dance so this is not for me”. I think it’s very important to note the difference between dance and Dance Movement Psychotherapy. Dance is where you basically learn steps of any cultural style or to a particular kind of music, where your intent is either to learn a skill to perform, or fitness or because it’s something you enjoy. But in Dance Movement Psychotherapy, it’s a very intentional, explorative process wherein you get into it in order to understand yourself better, to understand your patterns better and to learn your emotional behavior response patterns. 

Valerie- Okay. While you were giving us this answer and talked about Dance Therapy, you said that movement is the medium and your body is the instrument. Now when you talk about movement and using movement to express yourself, Drama Therapy does that as well. Drama Therapy is also about expressing with your body movements. So how does one understand what kind of therapy they should try? I mean, how does dance differ from drama therapy and stuff like that?

Tarana- There are a lot of overlapping patterns amongst all the creative arts therapists. I think within each therapy also, each therapist as their own personal approach. But drama extends to include a very theatrical perspective, bringing in the narrative or the story, bringing in roles. Whereas in Dance Movement Psychotherapy, engagement of the body is one element. Movement expression can be spontaneous, it doesn’t always have to be continued into dialogue or voice being engaged as well. So, it depends- you have role theory, you have adaptation of narratives. 

In both cases, the body can be an instrument but the medium of drama and movement is what would differentiate it.  I’ll give you an example- in movement therapy, we believe that when you grow up, you have different patterns of development. You have your cognitive development, you have your physical development which is your motor movement, and you have emotional development, amongst many other forms of development that happens. There are some theorists that say that along with all of this, there’s a movement development that happens wherein a combination of cognitive skills, emotional capacity and physical ability integrate to allow you to perform certain movement rhythms- how slow your body moves, how fast your body moves, how you switch between different phases. All of that is a combination of these capacities and that’s the realm that movement therapists work with. 

Valerie- Alright. Thank you for spreading light on that for us. 

Tarana – Yeah.

Valerie- Tarana, when did you realise that you wanted to become a Dance Movement Therapist?

Tarana-  That’s an interesting question! It was 2008, I was doing my undergrad in Psychology when I came across an article in the paper that spoke about Dance Movement Psychotherapy. I was like I love to dance, I’m really passionate about Psychology. If I had the opportunity to put it together, why not? So I set on my course to be a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, not realizing that I didn’t quite understand what that really was. I think it was a very intense and beautiful journey of me not only learning about the field in itself but learning about how I wanted to adapt to being a Dance Movement Psychotherapist and understanding what it meant in the larger world but also more importantly, what it meant for me.

Valerie- Right. So what did it mean for you?

Tarana- So there are certain things. While growing up, my exposure to dance had been very structured. It was always a particular style with a teacher teaching you steps. It was expressive in terms of I enjoyed it. I loved the experience of learning to dance, I loved the experience of performing but when I explored Dance Movement Psychotherapy, I really understood how to reflect on the sensation of the body and how to really look on the inside and know what story your body has to say from the life that it has lived, what you’ve held onto in your body without really being aware of it, in your entire life’s experience. 

I think that insight is what I carried out in my work. Even if I have a session where I’m primarily doing verbal conversation, I always find a way to bring that body experience into that conversation because it’s important to know that Dance Movement Therapy isn’t just to come, move and finish the session. It always culminates into a verbal reflection and a discussion and kind of integrating that to say this is what we’ve learnt, how do we take that forward?

Valerie- I love that you said that it’s a reflection into what you’ve been holding onto without being aware, in terms of an experience or anything else, and you help release that and understand that through movement therapy.

Tarana- Yes, ofcourse. I think “release” is a very strong word there because it’s important to become aware of it and then process it and of that process involves releasing it, then that’s something that you do. I think that’s why it’s so important for this process to be facilitated by a trained professional because if the release happens before you or your body is ready for it, it can be a very overwhelming experience that might do more harm than be helpful.

Valerie- You’ve been talking about dance therapy sessions. Could you tell us what goes on in one of your dance therapy sessions? Also how do you analyse someone’s emotional state through their movements and help bring them to a state of well-being through dance movement therapy?

Tarana- We don’t interpret the movements to say oh, you’re moving fast so it means this, or your body is small so it means this. But it’s important to say okay, if this is what we’re observing as a movement pattern, where could it be coming from? Why is that pattern comfortable for you? I think that’s where the analysis happens. To bring awareness to the existing pattern and identify why it’s working for you and if there’s an efficient way to carry that pattern forward wherein it helps cope with challenges and helps you move forward if there’s anything in particular that you’re choosing to process or move away from. So that would be the role of how one would look at the movement element. 

There are different tools of movement, observation and analysis that we use- some are more systematic and rigid, some are more flexible and observational but it depends on each individual therapist and their training to know how much of these analysis tools they use and how they integrate it into their work. For example, I work very developmentally- I apply an understanding of how the body grows from childhood to adulthood and how we can look to learn from that process of growing, adapt to what we really need and apply that in our daily life. Looking at the session in itself, it’s very different for each therapist but I can tell you how my sessions usually are. 

It’s a three part session- you start with an opening ritual, which is usually a transition into a therapeutic space. It could be just a verbal check-in, a body check-in or maybe some breathwork. Then there’s an exploratory part of a session where you really go into what it is that we want to look at in that particular session. With children or even with adults, it could be just playing. It could be pure spontaneous playing, it could be in-depth processing of trauma, it could be identifying a person’s response to stress or identifying triggers of one’s worry and concern. 

So the exploratory part of that session is about really exploring and expanding the experience that the person is in therapy for. The level of movement engagement in that section can vary depending on the comfort of the person that you’re working with, how open they are to movement engagement, and what their range of mobility is. It kind of translates into a verbal discussion, acknowledging the realizations and insight that may have come in during the exploration and how that can be integrated into their learnings about themselves and how that could be integrated into their behavioral responses from then onwards. 

Valerie- So it’s basically you looking at their movements or something that they’ve initiated and then asking them questions that would help them gauge a deeper meaning to what’s happening in their life and how they deal with it?

Tarana- Yes, it’s a very similar pattern to that. Sometimes, it comes out of spontaneous play, sometimes it comes out of a movement initiated by them, sometimes a more directive activity that may have been introduced during that session. It could be purely spontaneous, it could be initiated by the client saying what they want to do. Although for some people that can be very scary so some people prefer to have some direction or intentionality and ask for a boundary to work with, to explore within. 

The last part of the session is usually a closing. I think if you talk to any creative arts therapist, for most of us, rituals are so important. So is the closing and winding down of that shared space because in the exploration session, it is a shared, co-created space. It’s not me saying let’s do this and it’s not the client telling me to listen to all their troubles. It’s a very co-creative space. It’s this dialogue. Even if it’s in the body, there’s the concept of a dialogue. There’s a concept of give and take. So it’s important to finish that integration and prepare them to carry that forward into their lives.

Valerie- Right. So Tarana, working as a psychotherapist, you told us what happens in a dance therapy session and you did say that it is a co-creative space but it is also true that working as a psychotherapist, you probably do carry the burden of the problems your clients share with you. How do you care for your mental health? 

Tarana- – For me, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a burden but sometimes you do absorb some of their emotions and some of the experiences and that’s so vital for the efficiency of the process in itself, which is why I think there are three parts that I have followed and I think is important for any professional. One- your training. Your training equips you to create boundaries and awareness of how much you’re absorbing and how much that’s influencing the process that you’re facilitating for the client. 

The second- supervision, wherein you go to a senior therapist, no matter how senior a therapist you may be. You always go to a supervisor who kind of offers you a space to reflect on your personal work, see how much of your personal self is coming into your professional world and how much of your professional self may be affecting your personal world. Third- personal territory. I believe every therapist should have a therapist. I think there’s a misconception that if you’re a therapist, you’re very calm, you don’t argue, you’re always able to have a very mediative conversation but in reality, we’re all humans. We get angry and upset and so I think it’s important to have our own space, being held by somebody else that allows us to explore all of that. That’s basically what I do. 

I was blessed to have a sufficient amount of training which I continue to pursue to keep up to date, I am in supervision, and there were periods of time when I was also in long-term personal therapy and now I access my personal therapist as and when I need it. It’s also two-fold, right? It’s not only protecting myself but it’s maintaining a safe space for my client because if I don’t feel regulated in my own body, in that shared space, a lot of it could come out in the work that I’m doing and it would be unfair to the person who’s coming to me if a lot of my work was more about me than them.

Valerie- True.  

Tarana- Especially with the Pandemic, I think it’s really proven and re-humanized therapists in a way to say that we feel it too. We feel the fear, we feel the anxiousness, we feel the stress.

Valerie- So true. Tarana, thank you so much for talking to us today, for spreading so much light on what Dance Therapy is, how it works and for telling us that Dance Therapy is something that helps us understand our experiences from the body and relate it to the experiences of the min, and to tap into those emotions through dance and movement. I think it’s really helped us gain a greater understanding of what Dance Movement Therapy is, and also your final bit telling us how you unwind and how you keep yourself fit in order to ensure your clients are given due justice as well. Thank you so much.

Tarana- Thank you so much for inviting me and having me on this series, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Art Therapy ft. Alexis Decosimo

While Art has always been considered a means of self-expression and communication, the establishment of Art Therapy as a therapeutic approach to mental health has been a relatively recent find. 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today let’s understand Art Therapy and how it can promote mental well-being as we talk to Alexis Decosimo, a registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in Public Health. She focuses on empowering individuals and helping them heal through artistic expression and self-discovery. 

Welcome, Alexis.

Alexis- Thank you, Valerie. It’s so good to be here.

Valerie- Thank you for taking out time to talk to us today about Art Therapy. Let’s try to get a very basic understanding of how art relates to mental health.

Alexis- Absolutely. Let me explain it this way- We live in a multi-dimensional world. We live through senses and relationships, sights and smells, and what I noticed about myself is what when I’m only talking, I only can access just a little bit of that storyline. So what art does is it breaks through some of those barriers of words and allows you to express yourself through all the different senses that you experience throughout your day to day. I can go into more detail from the mental health standpoint as well, if you’d like me to. 

Valerie- Sure.

Alexis- So we have our analytical brain and then we have our creative brain. An an Art Therapist, when I’m working with clients, by using art I’m able to integrate both the analytical and the creative brain, allowing a client to explore past the boundary of words to really explore through creativity and thoughts and feelings and memories, and do it in a way that feels safe and fun and creative. That really allows someone to see their memories and their feelings in a holistic way. 

Valerie-  Alright, so you did tell us what Art Therapy is but how does it compare to conventional Psychotherapy?

Alexis- Conventional psychotherapy uses words as the medium through open-ended questions and story-telling and really relies on that analytical brain, a lot of the time. What art does is it allows somebody to engage through their creative brain. I think the best way is to give you an example- In typical psychotherapy, when you’re working with someone, you might ask them “Tell me about your strengths”. A person might give you a list and maybe some examples. 

What an Art Therapist would do is say “Explore your strengths through imagery”, “Tell me what it would be like if you were a superhero”, “How would you go throughout your day and be able to use the superhero strengths to engage with the world around you?”. Then that person actually creates imagery of their idea of their strengths in a way that is fun and exploratory as well as a little bit magical but it goes beyond our conventional day to day life and it really allows someone to sink into that perspective of what strength and resiliency is and that person then gets the time to create those images and create those ideas, and then they’re able to use their analytical thinking brain to go back and explain their ideas. So it’s this holistic approach that connects both sides of our thinking brain.

Valerie- So what’s a simple way to get started? Is it possible for us to do it if we’re not artistic as people? Because I am someone who considers herself to not have any artistic ability so what’s a simple way for us to get started?

Alexis- I always laugh when someone says this. Clients come in and say “I want to do Art Therapy but I’m not an artist” and I always say “You can’t tell an Art Therapist that you’re not an artist”. If you have the ability to move your body, you are an artist. One of my favourite artists is actually blind and he creates all of his paintings through his senses and his memory of colours and what the world looked like before he became blind. There are people who aren’t able to use their arms and legs and they use their mouth to paint. So it’s not so much about this conventional idea about what art is, it’s more about being able to express yourself. 

I think it’s important to make the distinction between Art Therapy and art for mental health. Art Therapy is a mental health profession facilitated by a trainer or therapist. Unfortunately, even in the United States, Art Therapists are few and far between and a lot of the time, require financial means to be able to pay for sessions and so when you asked the question of how we can use Art therapy in our everyday life, putting aside the diagnosis, psychoanalysis and ideas of when we really look into mental health, and we look at it more as how to integrate art into our lives because art, in and of itself, is healing. It gives us the space to shut down the stimulus of the world and whatever we have to engage in, in our daily lives, and just gives us a moment to reflect and be creative. That’s really one of the most important reasons when we think of how to integrate art for our own wellbeing. 

You have mentioned that you’re not an artist although I believe everyone is an artist but I do understand that looking at a white piece of paper can be really intimidating and so colouring books are a really good start for a lot of people. I will say that they do term themselves as Art Therapy itself but it is not Art Therapy because it is not facilitated by a mental health Art Therapist but it’s really soothing and it can be really meditative so it can just be a really good place for you to go to where you don’t have to think about what you have to create but you can have some colours next to you and just shut down the rest of the world and engage in just the act of colouring and creating. 

I will say that art itself creates a bilateral stimulation in your brain, which actually helps you to relax and to let go of your day and so even colouring, with your eyes moving back and forth and your hands moving back and forth itself, can be a really huge thing but there are so many other things in coloring books so that is a great start for people who are really hesitant but there is knitting, I’m a huge fan of taking classes because it helps you learn a couple of skills so then you can go past that and create your own expression. There is a lot on YouTube about painting and about clay and knitting and so that’s a really good way to start as well.

Valerie- Right. In your opinion, when should people try seeking Art Therapy? If you’re going to psychotherapy, of course this is something that complements psychotherapy but how do you draw the difference?

Alexis- Well, I think the first piece is to know if there are Art Therapists available. I know in India there are some Art Therapists and it depends in different parts of the world. That’s where I struggle the most. Art therapy is still a relatively small field and it would probably be different for different people but if you’re in psychotherapy and you find that you have a bunch of walls that you can’t seem to get past and you can feel it and sense it and you can maybe see what you’re trying to get to but you can’t get words to it, that would be a great time to try and find an Art Therapist to see if they can help facilitate breaking past those walls or putting those sensations into words. 

The cool thing about Art Therapists is that we are trained as mental health clinicians so we are trained in the traditional psychotherapies and behavioral therapies. We have this extra skill that in learning all this, we’ve also learnt it through visual art and how to facilitate it through art. Some people have an art therapist as an additional therapist to help them and in a lot of cases, even in my private practice, I am a person’s primary therapist because I’m trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) so we can do EMDR but we can also have that additional art piece to it.

Valerie- Right. So let me ask you, you just said that even Art Therapists are trained in the traditional form of therapy. What got you interested in the alternative form of therapy through art?

Alexis-  As a kid I was always really artistic and I really had two passions- it was art and it was also engaging with people. One of my challenges as a kid was that I had a speech impediment and so I had a hard time communicating with other people and so I learnt that art was a really good way for me to express myself. I felt very confined with words. I should say that some people are very artistic with their words, with singing and poems and so words can definitely be used artistically as well but for me, I had a hard time communicating and so art was this way for me to break past that. When I was in high school, I was told about Art Therapy and after that I knew what I wanted to do! So I looked it up and I realised it was accessible to be and from then on, I knew I was going to do that. 

I will say something that I can is important is that Art therapy was accessible to me, to be able to go study. I think there are over thirty five schools in the United States so I knew it would be accessible but after graduating as an Art Therapist, I immediately went to my doctorate in Public Health because what I realised in my global work was that universities and schools of Art Therapy are still pretty inaccessible outside of some key countries and so my career build is really to look at the skills and knowledge of Art Therapy but beyond the therapy word. So really looking at it as how can individuals who aren’t Art Therapists or don’t have access to Art Therapists, access some of the key pieces of art, as you’re asking right now. This is how you can access art for well-being and for that positive aspect in our loves.

Valerie- I think it’s wonderful that you found a place where you could combine two passions- engaging with people, and art, and actually do that for a living and do that every day of your life. 

Alexis- It’s pretty amazing! It’s sometimes hard to explain because it almost feels magical sometimes, I guess that’s really the greatest word for it. I’ve had some clients recently where I give them an art activity like the superhero or creating space for your anxiety outside of your body, where it’s just a suggestion that I give but I don’t know where it’s going to go and all of a sudden the next week, the client comes back saying they feel so much better because they can visualize what they’ve been feeling or a place to put their anxiety outside of their body so that they don’t have to carry it. And we both just sit there stunned saying “That really worked!”. That really did something. Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing thing.

Valerie- Yeah, it is. So, what I wanted to ask you is that when you have the pandemic currently with everyone with isolated and a lot of people now dealing with a lot of mental health issues, also in general for you, working as a mental health counselor you listen to people in distress and you help them cope and that’s probably a constant part of your life. Personally, how do you take care of your mental health? Does Art Therapy play a therapeutic role in your life?

Alexis- Those are great questions. I would say that mental health clinicians now are definitely frontline staff. We end up being the safe place for a lot of people to put their worries and fears so that they can move a little bit lighter throughout this pandemic and feeling a little bit more safe and secure and so then we as mental health clinicians have the responsibility of carrying that and to me, it is such an honour to carry those things but as a human being, it is also very difficult. I am no stranger to trauma, one of my specialities is humanitarian crises and then additionally to that speciality, I worked during the Ebola epidemic and so viruses are also not a stranger to me. So it’s also quite interesting moving through this Pandemic because all of a sudden, it’s personal. In the humanitarian crises and Ebola, it wasn’t so much personal. I knew my family was safe and I knew I had a place to go home to where I could decompress before starting again and then all of a sudden, this Pandemic is everywhere and you can’t hide from it. So it’s a whole different kind of stressor. 

I had a pottery wheel in my Art Therapy studio that I had bought for my clients and they loved it and I loved being able to facilitate that with them and I’m only working telework right now because of the virus so I actually brought the pottery wheel home and I have it in a wooden shed out in my yard and I go to that pottery wheel almost every single day. It has been such a lifeline for me because I’m not in a place where I want to visually express my stressors right now, it’s better for me to feel like I can hold them and so for pottery, it’s something I don’t have to think about, analyse or dive too deep into but it’s soothing and I think that’s a really important thing about art- that it can be soothing and it doesn’t always have to be analytical or deep. It can sometimes just be soothing and enjoyable and a place to turn off the brain for a moment. So that has been my way of coping. That and just getting outside has been a huge thing for me. 

Valerie- That’s nice. It’s really nice that something that you do for a living also helps you calm down because you deal with so much stress when it comes to dealing with people and carrying that with you. It’s good that art is also a way for you to tune it all out and also just be there with yourself.

Alexis- Absolutely and I would also say that I have my own therapist that I see weekly right now. I sometimes look at her thinking that I know I’m giving her my stressors as other people give me theirs so it’s almost like a pass-off to some degree but I think it’s important to acknowledge that as a mental health clinician, it is almost as important for eating and sleeping as it is for acknowledging that it is a basic need right now to have that safe person to pass off some of your stressors and I think that is so important.

Valerie- That is so true. It is so important for us to just have people to talk to with so much going on and it’s great that you have that for yourself as well.

Alexis- Yeah, it’s been really wonderful.

Valerie- So Alexis thank you so much for taking out the time and talking to us and actually giving us an introduction to what Art Therapy is and how it works. We learnt from you that it’s one way to break through the barriers and when you can’t express yourself through words, there are other means for you to seek help and just calm yourself down and find peace. Thank you so much for being here and introducing us to this.

Alexis- Yeah absolutely, thank you Valerie. Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. Thanks for all the work you guys do.

Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: An Introduction ft. Beth Donahue

In recent times, various forms complementary and alternative therapies have been adopted by people going through mental health issues, owing to therapeutic benefits. Let’s introduce ourselves to alternative therapy and learn how it can aid mental health.


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we have Elizabeth Donahue, Associate Chair of the Art Therapy Program at Antioch University, Seattle. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist. She enjoys working with her clients to find their voice through artistic expression.

Welcome, Beth.

Beth- Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us today. 

Beth- Oh, I’m happy to be here.

Valerie- Let’s start with you telling us what Alternative Therapy for mental health is and how it compares to conventional psychotherapy.

Beth- Yeah, so I think many people are familiar with how conventional psychotherapy works. You go to see your therapist and you sit in your office and you talk with them and they listen and maybe they would give you some feedback or some advice. And that works really well for a lot of people but other people maybe don’t have the words to express their emotions, or maybe the things that they need to talk about are a little too hard to talk about, maybe too traumatic. So that’s where alternative therapies can come into play. Art Therapy, Drama Therapy, Clay Therapy, Music Therapy- these are all ways for people to rest their thoughts and emotions through different media rather than through just talking.

Valerie- Right. You said that you can express yourself through different media apart from just talking. Is that the only reason that one would consider Alternative Therapy or could there be other reasons as well?

Beth- There could be other reasons! Some people might find that they enjoy creative expression, that the simple act of art making or music making is therapeutic in itself. They might find that being guided through their creative activities by an art therapist or a music therapist might be beneficial. 

Valerie- Okay. Like you just told us, there are various forms of alternative therapy for mental health. There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, and a lot more. How would we know which form would help us best express ourselves? 

Beth- I think one option might be to consider which one you enjoy engaging in media. If you are a person that likes to draw or paint, then Art Therapy might be a good fit for you. If you enjoy using your body and movements to express yourself, something like Dance Movement Therapy or Drama Therapy might be more appropriate for you. I think the best way to choose is based on what you’re already interested in.

Valerie- Right. So I consider myself to be somebody who does not draw, who does not dance, who does not sing very well either. So taking all of this into consideration and if you want to try out Alternative Therapy, is it necessary for you to have an inclination towards one of these specific things or can you try it out regardless?

Beth- Such a good question! Yeah, of course. The job of an art therapist or a drama therapist, the alternative therapist, is to help you express yourself through these different mediums and they can assist you. Say maybe you want to express yourself through dance but you’re not a dancer. You’ve never taken a dance class and you don’t know anything about it. Their job is to help you obtain the skills that you need to express yourself. They might show you a couple of dance moves or a few poses, to help you express yourself. It’s the same with art or drama therapy. 

For example, to be an Art Therapist, you must be a trained artist yourself. So you know how to use the different art supplies that might be present and you can teach the person who’s with you, your client, to use those supplies as well. So you don’t need to do anything! The other cool thing is that art therapy or music therapy, these aren’t about creating fine works of art that might hang in a museum. Their purpose is the journey itself so the creation of the artwork is what’s important and not really the end result. You don’t have to worry about not making something that looks beautiful, you just worry about making something that expresses yourself. 

Valerie- Right. I love that you said that the purpose is the journey. It’s not about what you create or the quality of the stuff that you’re doing but it’s about the process of doing it.

Beth- Yes, exactly. That’s totally true.

Valerie- So you are a registered mental health counselor. You chose to take an alternative form of therapy and work as an Art Therapist. What made you make this decision? 

Beth- Well, there are a couple of reasons that I decided to be both, a mental health counselor and an Art Therapist. One of them is that I want to be able to support my clients in whatever way they want to express themselves and so sometimes that means through art, and sometimes that means they do just want to just talk, and I want to be able to support them in doing both things. The other thing is that there’s a little bit of a technical issue in the United States. In most places, you can’t be licensed as an Art Therapist, you need to also be licensed as a mental health counsellor in order to work with people. So I thought it’s a good idea to have that background as well in case I want to work in various settings. So really, I wanted to make sure that I was able to support and help the largest number of people and I didn’t want to limit myself to only doing alternative therapy. I wanted to be able to do both.

Valerie- That’s beautiful, that you wanted to help as many people as you could and also take the interest that you have in art and use that to help people.

Beth- Well, thank you! Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been wonderful.

Valerie- Could you give us an insight into what happens in an Art Therapy session?

Beth- Sure! A number of different things might happen. A person might come into my art therapy room and just sit down at the desk and just pick up some supplies and start expressing themselves that way, right away. Sometimes I am just a compassionate witness to the art-making and we don’t really talk at all. They make art and they find that therapeutic and maybe we’ll talk a little bit at the end of the session. Another way though can be that a person comes down in my office and they sit down and they’re really struggling to tell me about something. They really feel like there’s something they want me to know but they don’t have the right words and they’re kind of frustrated that way. And so I might ask them to pick a colour and draw whatever shape comes to mind first. Then we start there with something really simple, and then we might move on to a far more detailed picture that helps us both understand that they’re trying to say. Is that helpful?

Valerie- Yes but this actually made me think of another thing- the tasks that you’re talking about like trying to ask them to draw a shape, it’s all so abstract that I don’t understand how you can actually make sense of stuff like that and help people. How do you do that? Or is that something you’ve been trained to understand?

Beth- That’s a really good question! So no, say I ask somebody to pick a colour and draw a shape. They picked green and they drew a square. I’m not going to know what that means just by looking at it but what I would do is ask the person who drew it to explain it to me. I might say- Well, I noticed you chose a bright colour of green. Can you tell me what this reminds you of? When you look at this colour of green, what else do you think about? And then I might ask- I notice you drew this shape. What does this shape remind you of? What do you think of when you use this shape? When’s the first time you saw that shape? – And so by association, the client starts to explain why they chose the colour and shape and then we might get to something deeper, something more about the issue that they want to talk about. One thing people think art therapists might do is find meaning in other people’s artwork and be able to read their minds by looking at the art but we don’t do that at all. We ask the clients questions.

Valerie- So it’s really digging deep into what and why your client has chosen something and trying to understand it from their perspective, taking into account what they’ve drawn or what they’ve chosen to draw.

Beth- Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Valerie- That’s interesting. So in your life, you are an Art Therapist to all of your clients but when you feel low or when you need help, is art something you turn to as well?

Beth- It is something that I turn to as well. I find art-making to be really soothing. I do two kinds of art- I do textile work, which is about repetitive motion, so embroidery or cross-stitch, something that is really concrete and takes a lot of the same motion over and over, and I find that doing that kind of activity can be really relaxing. In the other kind, I don’t need to relax, I actually need to get energy out and so I draw on really big canvases and make really big artwork so that I’m moving my limbs a lot to express myself and that helps me release some emotion, when I need to do that. 

Valerie- Right. So is a lot of Alternative Therapy engaging in repetitive motions that can try to calm and soothe you? 

Beth- It is for some people. That’s a thing that works for me. For other people, it can be more about engaging with the materials itself. I’m thinking about a little girl that I worked with years ago- she liked to work with clay and she really liked to just grab the clay and squish it between her fingers and have that experience of just feeling the clay, and that’s how she releases tension. She just really squished that clay, tore it to pieces and then she felt relieved from that, she felt better. 

Valerie- Right. Another question I want to ask you is that you’ve introduced us to Alternative Therapy, what it is, when one should consider using Alternative Therapy but can it replace conventional psychotherapy or does it work as something that complements it?

Beth- I think it depends on the client. Yes, it can absolutely be the only therapy that people are using, it can replace conventional psychotherapy for a lot of people. For some other people, maybe depending on the diagnosis, they might need both kinds. They might need both talk therapy and an alternative therapy to support that.

Valerie- So when we talk about Alternative Therapy, we have music, art, dance, drama, there’s so much. Is it something that somebody can try at home or is that different from actual alternative therapy?

Beth- You have so many good questions! Yes, absolutely. People can engage in alternative therapies at home. They can engage in art-making, dance, music, clay therapy, they can do all of this at home and they are therapeutic. But what makes it Art Therapy or Drama Therapy is having a trained alternative therapist, somebody trained with you in the room, because that is what takes it to the next level and makes it a therapy rather than just therapeutic. Am I making sense?

Valerie- Yup. That makes sense. Another question I wanted to ask you is that with the Pandemic and so much going on, I’m sure you must have a lot more clients coming to you because there’ just so much going on in the World that’s making everyone so uncomfortable. At the end of it all, I’m sure you must be going through a lot of long days right now but how do you unwind? How do you take care of your own mental health to make sure that you’re not burning out and you can still help the clients that come to you?

Beth- That’s a lovely question. Well, the first thing is that I see an Art Therapist myself. I have an Art Therapist that I see and work with and I think it’s really important for all therapists, counsellors, healers to have their own person that they can talk to and make art with, if that’s how they express themselves. So that’s one way. Another thing that I do is try to engage in activities that are totally different from art therapy. So I’ve really gotten into cooking in the last six months or so. I was a person who ordered takeout a lot but now I have cooked things from scratch in my own home and it’s good! It’s a soothing activity and then I have nourishment at the end, I have something to eat. 

Valerie- Right. Well, Beth thank you so much for talking to us today about Alternative Therapy because it’s something that we’re going to try to explore now with every episode that we have and we’re going to try to get in-depth into the therapies that we discussed today. Thank you so much for actually coming here and spreading light about Alternative Therapy and how it can be used. Also, a very nice thing I liked that you said at the end was that you have your own therapist as well. We always need someone to talk to and share our burden with and I think that was an absolutely beautiful note to end this on. Thank you so much for coming today.

Beth- Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing the rest of the episodes in the podcast.
Valerie- Sure, thank you.

LonePack Conversations – Child Sexual Abuse and its impact on Mental Health ft. Viji Ganesh

In our country, safety has always been a major public health concern. While it’s disheartening to see cases of abuse almost constantly flashed on our television screens, stigma around the issue prevents us from talking about it or discussing the personal trauma that one battles.


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie. 

Today, we have Viji Ganesh, Personal Safety Coach and Educator.  She volunteers and works as a freelancer promoting awareness and prevention education about Child Sexual Abuse and imparting sexuality education. She is here talk to us about the impact that child sexual abuse has on one’s mental health and how we can help contribute to a safe space for children.

Welcome, Viji. 

Viji- Thank you, Valerie. It’s such an appropriate time to do this because just yesterday, Child Safety Week ended. November 14th being Children’s Day in India, November 19th being International Day of Abuse Prevention and November 20th being International Children’s Day. We had a week-long session on creating awareness about this particular topic. It’s so apt that we’re doing this today. Thank you for this opportunity.

 Valerie- Thank you. It’s amazing that you spent the entire last week and actually, most of what you do is to promote a safe space for children and create awareness about child sexual abuse. 

Viji- That’s right. I’m mostly into primary prevention, which is to get people to talk about it more and help child children and empower them to get into protective behaviours- to protect themselves from abuse and also to not become abusive. 

Valerie- So, when we look at statistics in India, it shows that around 110 children are sexually abused every single day. You can see around us that a lot of people may not even be aware of the fact that such acts are committed, or we choose not to talk about them because we find ourselves in uncomfortable positions. When you look at the people affected by it, it is so difficult for them to talk about it because of so much stigma that’s associated with it, or sometimes it happens at such a young age that they don’t even understand what’s happening to them. What are your views on this?

Viji- Child sexual abuse is rather disturbing, abhorrent and most often an unimaginable crime for most of us but the unfortunate reality is that it exists and does keep happening. Many people say that only of late, the incidences have increased but I wouldn’t agree with that because it is only now that the reporting has increased. It has always been happening but thanks to social media, the reporting has increased now. As you said, there is a lot of stigma around this, most of us are in denial. Most of us are also uncomfortable and inhibited from talking about this. That is where primary prevention comes in. The response to child sexual abuse should be handled with a view to increase awareness rather than to be in denial. It may seem very daunting and we can get overwhelmed by it but let me assure you, the fears, concerns and inhibitions are all very relevant and cannot be wished away. We have to deal with it so that we can empower our children effectively, address this issue to prevent it and help survivors heal. 

You are very right when you say there is so much stigma around this, mostly because when a survivor speaks up, they are most often not believed or are shamed. They are blamed and asked questions about what they were wearing, till what time they were out, and other typical questions. So most often, they prefer to keep quiet and suffer in silence. But we need to speak up about this. Not only the affected or the survivors, those who are not affected should also have the same amount of empathy towards it and only then can this issue be addressed in its totality. It starts with the community. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to address this issue. All of us have a role and responsibility in addressing this issue, is what I feel.

Valerie- Very true. When you spoke about the amount of stigma that’s associated with it that so many children prefer to suffer in silence as opposed to being questioned and shamed, in relation to this I wanted to ask you that people who face child sexual abuse often battle psychiatric disorders mostly because of stigma, suffering in silence and the after-effects of trauma. This may extend and reflect largely on their adult lives too, at times. Could you elaborate on this for us? 

Viji- Yeah, sure. Most often, ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases are by people known to the child. Stranger danger is no longer a real danger. Not all strangers are dangerous and not all known people are safe. In most CSA cases, it is a known person that commits this crime. That is the first difficulty that a child faces- not being able to accept that it has happened by someone they trust, like and have to live with in the same house, sometimes. That’s where it all starts. The confusion and emotional conflict that they have with the person. As a child, they suffer a lot. It can lead to a fall in academics, eating disorders, bed-wetting, sexualized behavior or becoming introverted. It could manifest in many ways but these should not be looked at in isolation, they have to be seen together. 

But as an adult, it can manifest in varied complex ways. There could be physical symptoms which disappear after a while which could be treated and medically addressed but there are a lot of emotional aspects that an adult survivor could go through- anxiety, depression, PTSD and emotional distress. Some of them could even suffer from eating disorders. They could even have externalizing behaviours such as substance abuse, alcoholism and in some cases, can also become abusive themselves, but not all abusers have a history of being abused so it has to be seen in isolation. The fact that ninety percent of these cases are of abuse by trusted adults leads them to trust issues, issues in interpersonal relationships and may also become revictimized in several relationships. They may be in a self-blame mode thinking that they did something which is why this happened to them. The system doesn’t respond to tell them that it’s not their fault, that it was never their fault. We always tell parents that to encourage disclosure, first listen and listen actively. In fact, we tell the parents that if they suspect that some child is on the threshold of disclosure, the first words that you should say is “It’s not your fault”. Once we start from there, the healing journey becomes easier. That’s how it manifests. The effect of CSA could be very complex and long lasting. 

I would like to quote a particular incident that happened in my workshop- a 63 year old grandmother had brought her granddaughter for my workshop in Hyderabad, around 8 years ago. After the session, I was quite overwhelmed listening to her tell me that she wished she had these kinds of workshops and education when she was growing up because she was also abused as a child and at 63 years old, this was the first time she was talking about it. That kind of jolted me, to realise that somebody could live uncompromisingly as an adult, with this in the background. One of the ways they deal with it is to push it to the back-burner, but you never know when it will erupt. Broadly, these are the effects that it can have on a functional adult. Sometimes, there could be a compromise on adult functionalities- they could appear to be normal but you don’t know what they are going through within. There is so much more to it than what I can tell you during this brief podcast.

Valerie- Right, but thank you for spreading light on this for us. You are someone who is deeply involved in the cause of child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, like you said, you host plenty workshops to spread awareness about this. How important would you say reaching out is for those affected by it? When you come across someone affected by child sexual abuse, what is your approach and interaction like? 

Viji- In nature, everything is resilient with an attitude to bear with all to heal and spring back to life. The first thing a survivor should have is the bravery to ask for help. That’s the bravest thing that one can do and it opens up a floodgate of options for them to start their healing journey. Which is why we keep reminding them that it’s not their fault and that they should ask for help. You do not have to define yourself by what happened when you were a child, when things were out of your control. It’s just like if you meet with an accident on the road, if you break your knee, you get surgery. You do not define yourself by the accident or what your knee has undergone. If you have the same perspective about abuse as well, it is easier to heal but even as I say that, I am aware that the two are not comparable situations but what’s important is that we do not define ourselves by what happened to us as we were a child, when things were out of our control. It is very difficult but it is not impossible to start our healing journey towards closure. 

This is where our society comes in to work on the stigma attached to it. In newspaper headlines, when they report incidents of abuse, it is always the victim that’s highlighted and not the abuser. We need to change that narrative. The blame needs to shift from the victim to the abuser. That in itself gives acceptance and can help start the path to healing. There are many ways to deal with the trauma from sexual abuse, there is no one solution that would fit all. Some people could spring back to action soon, some people could put it on the back-burner and live a normal life, some people could do things positively and help heal others. There are various ways to heal and that journey starts with the bravery to ask for help. That would be my message to all survivors- ask for help.

Valerie- I think it’s beautiful that you said don’t define yourself by what happened. You don’t centre your life around one incident. I thought that was beautiful.

Viji- Thank you.

Valerie- How do you approach people when they come to you and show bravery to talk about what they have been through? How do you approach and interact with them?

Viji- Basically, it all comes down to listening. Abuse is all about power inequity. It’s never about a sexual act but about somebody more powerful doing something that you have no control over. That is the stage they are in which is why even a grown adult gets into patterns of revictimization and self-blame, and always look for validation in others. This is one of the manifestations. We try to tell them that now you are in a safe position, it is over and done with. We may even take them back to that memory or place or time and relive it at their level of comfort and get over the lack of power that they felt at that time, and feel more powerful about their current empowering situations. They say that even now, it is a child that’s trapped in an adult’s mind even now. When they think about the abuse, they think of themselves as the child which was abused then and not as an adult now. That is why we have to start the journey from there and overcome their limitations. Also create safe spaces now, surround yourself with positivity, positive people and safe people.

Valerie- Okay. Talking about the importance of safe spaces, could you elaborate on some personal safety lessons that one can learn at schools?

Viji- Schools are a great place for transformation. It is where every child spends two-thirds of their waitful hours. Be it disclosures or learning about safety measures, it all happens majorly in schools. Their resources for disclosure are peers and teachers. We advocate personal safety education for children right from kindergarten till the end of their school years. It’s a holistic life skill approach that we follow, that gives them the education that empowers them to take part in their own protection, with knowledge, assertive skills, and information. The basic problem with most children when it comes to child sexual abuse is the lack of vocabulary, we do not name our body parts correctly. To children, a hand, a forehead and a penis are all body parts when they are just two or three years old. It is the adult mind which thinks of these parts as reproductive organs to use for sexualized behaviours. To a child, a vagina or a penis is just another part like a hand or a leg. Our education proceeds by giving them the correct names of their body parts, teaching them their functionality and slowly, as they grow into adolescence, discuss sexuality education. 

We teach them assertive skills by telling them that they are unique and special and have full body autonomy and they have every right to say “no” to any unwanted touch. It is not “who” that matters but the action. It could be anybody, it doesn’t matter but what matters is what they do, whether you like it and whether you want it. The commonly used terms of “bad” and “good” touch are not recommended, instead we should teach children about “safe” and “unsafe” touches. I would like to quote from one of my workshops- a small boy asked me “What if I feel good about a bad touch?”. Some of these touches could make them feel good even though they are intentionally wrong because these are all places filled with nerve centres and a lot of blood flow so it could make them feel good and pleasurable but they do not have the perception to know that the act itself is wrong so they could just stop with feeling that it makes them feel good. 

We want to teach children that they have absolute body autonomy and the full right to say “no” to any touch that they do not like. Any form of physical affection should always be at the behest of the child and not the calling of an adult. We cannot make our children responsible for an adult’s emotion. We educate the parents to accept a “no” every now and then so that the children know that it all starts from home and that the significant people in their lives will accept it when they say “no”. Once you give them the confidence that they can say “no” and that it will be accepted in the right spirit, they will do it outside as well. Whereas if you tell them that they have to respect adults and listen to whatever they say, they will remember that and even if it is a wrong touch, they may think about it and stay silent. 

We also teach them to build a robust support system of adults and communities by choosing their trusted adults, possibly parents, family and teachers, and also how to handle emotions like fear and anger, which are normally seen as negative emotions but we tell them that fear and anger are very positive emotions, which are like red flags. If you fear something, it means that you need to do something about it. It is an action point. If you feel angry, you need to act on that anger in the right way. We teach them conflict resolution and how to handle their emotions. Before telling them how to handle their emotions, we tell them to recognize and talk about their feelings. We do not know how to put a label on our emotions. Only when we know what we’re feeling will we be able to address and handle it. We also help build empathy because while every care is taken to prevent abuse from happening to them, we also need to ensure that they do not become abusive and that’s where empathy comes into play. The most important thing we teach them is that despite all this, if it still happens, do not blame yourself because it was never your fault. This is our personal safety education in a nutshell.

Valerie- Thank you for talking to us about this, it was very informative. Especially the part where you said that you’re supposed to understand your emotions and channel it correctly. Also not to blame yourself for anything that happens, if it does.

Viji- That’s the most important, yes.

Valerie- Also, when we talk about the current situation in the World, there is so much darkness when it comes to sexual abuse. There is so much talk about it and it’s because it keeps happening. I wanted to ask you- How do you see things getting brighter in the future? How do we become part of the solution? 

Viji- That’s a very good question. We have to be a part of the solution and not stay in the problem forever. There are many knee-jerk reactions whenever a case is reported- there is media bashing and a lot of blogs being written but after that, nothing happens. Do we do anything to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? We are all in denial that it is happening to someone else, it may not happen to me. Prevention and healing require an equal amount of sensitivity, care, positivity, optimism and being practical. 

When it comes to care, you teach personal safety education to children, start a conversation about it, make note of the vulnerable points in your community and the possibility of abuse happening. Adults need to sit and talk about it and not live in denial. It is very difficult and daunting but we need to work positively and believe that things can be changed. A lot of people are creating awareness now. Earlier men never used to talk about it but now there are a lot of men rooting for this cause and talking about it. A lot of survivors are now bold enough to open up and talk about their journey, and not define themselves by it. 

Practically, we have to translate prevention and healing into an actionable blueprint. That’s where practical tips on personal safety education in all schools and resources for survivors need to happen. So it is possible and to be a part of the solution, the first thing we can do is to start a conversation around it. It can be a dinner table conversation at home or even a conversation with the children while travelling in the car. If the parents need more information, there are plenty of resources available on the internet. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a professional to come and talk about it but a little training and research certainly helps to not teach the children a wrong lesson because un-learning is very difficult here. It’s better to always give the right message by reading up, doing your own research and there are professionals working in this area. 

That’s how you can start a conversation around it and address the issue, and be a part of the solution. In fact, a lot of people took part in this week-long child safety week and I had interviewed four or five people from various walks of life who are rooting for this cause. The first thing is to get people to talk about it and normalize it just like a fire safety drill or a road safety drill. That is how it has to be taught to a child, like another life skill. 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to us about this. I hope that through this conversation that we’ve had, we could help raise more awareness on child sexual abuse. I really appreciate everything that you said to us about the importance of starting conversations and normalizing them for children so that it’s not looked at as such a taboo thing to talk about or something that’s associated with shame. Also, more importantly, not to live in denial of the fact that it will not happen to us but in turn to do some research, to start reading up on it and to handle situations with empathy, sensitivity and optimism, and empower people. There’s so much that we got to learn from you today and I’m really grateful that you took out the time to talk to us about this. Thank you so much, Viji.

Viji- My pleasure. Awareness is the key to all this and it’s the only sustainable solution to end this social malady, I would think. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Valerie. My life’s motive is that if I can save one child from abuse, I will have lived my life well.

Valerie- Yeah. Thank you so much.

You can learn more about Viji Ganesh’s work on YouTube

LonePack Conversations- Mindfulness and honing one’s craft ft. Krishna Trilok

While the word categorizes writers as people who seek loneliness and silence, it fails to see them as they truly are- a diverse group of individuals, who have mastery over the most powerful human sense, imagination.

 


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Pooja- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Pooja, your host. Today we have with us Krishna Trilok, master storyteller and best-selling author of the biography of our beloved composer, Mr. A.R. Rahman.  

Welcome to LonePack Conversations, Krishna. Having you here with us is an absolute pleasure. 

Krishna- Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here. Hello, everyone.

Pooja- Hi, so how’s it going during the quarantine?

Krishna- It’s going great. I mean, we need to be positive so I’m going to say that it’s going great. Yes, could things be better? Do I miss going out, seeing people doing all the things we took for granted? Yes, but I think this is a fantastic time to introspect and to value and appreciate what we have and look forward to when things go back and be very grateful when they do.

 

Pooja- That’s so nice. I wish I was as positive as you. So, let’s start off with a little perspective. What prompted you to write ‘Sharikrida’, your first book? I mean, how did a student of commerce become so interested in mythology?

 

Krishna- So, I actually grew up in a household of storytellers. I don’t mean that in the sense that coming from a family of storytellers, generally, but even the people who worked in the house, so on and so forth, they were great storytellers. My grandmother was a big influence, she used to tell me stories when I was a child. You know, stories from Indian mythology and Indian folk plays and I loved those. She used to go to the theatres and watch movies and I was too young to go and she would come back and tell me the stories. So, a lot of classic movies, actually, much before I actually saw them, I heard them as stories, so that was an informative experience. Then I actually had a cook in the house. She used to come and cook for us and she was a fantastic storyteller, in the sense that she would actually make it a series. She would tell a little bit of the story every day, so I guess she would prepare and then come and tell everyday. You would be waiting to hear what happened next. So, she would tell me a little bit of the story for fifteen minutes everyday and I would be waiting to hear what happened next. 

 

So, all of that, I think really got me into storytelling and Indian mythology in general and I was also a big fan of all your ‘Amarchitrakatha’ and the books on Greek mythology and so on and so forth. So, I always knew, I think when I was around thirteen, I decided that I wanted to tell stories. That’s what I wanted to do with my life and at that age, the only avenue available to explore this interest was pen and paper. We did not really have the camera technology and all of that, as it is available today. So, I just decided that I would go and start writing. I got a notebook from a nearby store and I started writing and that’s how it happened. I studied business on the side and all of that but I was always writing whenever I got the time and thankfully by the time I finished college, my undergrad, I managed to find an agent and then a publisher who would be interested in putting out my work. 

 

It was a long process, it did take time, it did not happen the way I thought it would happen. Like when you’re thirteen, you start writing, you think everything is going to go your way and everything is going to be perfect but it doesn’t happen and part of life is figuring out how to deal with things not going your way. When something doesn’t go your way, you learn to say “Okay now, this hasn’t happened, what do I do with the situation?” and it was a great learning experience as well. That’s how it started and I’m still on the journey, and it’s been fantastic. Everyday has been fantastic and I’m grateful for it.

 

Pooja- Okay, so can you share with us one of your mythological stories that had you so interested? A small type of story, maybe?  

 

Krishna- I think one of my favorite stories that I used to hear when I was a kid was not actually a mythological story but it was those folk tale stories, you know, of the crow and the snake and the old lady and the crow and then the fox. I think the one that I’m most fond of is the one where there’s a hungry fox and it sees the grapes and it tries to get them but then they’re too high up and then finally the fox just says “You know what? Those grapes are probably sour” and goes away. I mean, contrast that against the story of the crow, that is very thirsty and finds a jar of water but the water is too low and it goes on putting stones until the water level is higher and it can finally drink it. I think those two stories just taught me more about life than anything ever since. You can either say that a situation is not working out for you, blame the situation and walk away, or you can see the situation and see what you can do to make it better and make it work for you. So, those were two stories that really really shaped my looking at the World. 

Of course, I didn’t learn the lessons until I was much older but now I try to work and apply it in life in every way because I think you have to make mistakes. Unless you make mistakes, you don’t learn. So, definitely, I have walked away from a lot of situations which I could’ve handled differently and changed and so on and so forth but I’ve learnt over time. Including things like this quarantine, you know? I mean, we can either say that this is the worst time in our lives and we can’t wait for things to get better and we’re going to sit and crib about what governments are doing, what everybody is doing and how awful everything is or we can choose to take it as a gift and say that this is time that we have been given. 

Literally, we have been given time to not do anything and just enjoy ourselves, watch movies and all of that, if you have that privilege, which I do. I’m not going to lie about that. I know there are a lot of people who are struggling right now. They are struggling with lack of employment, they are struggling with uncertainty, they are struggling with a lot of issues but I think if you are a person who doesn’t need to worry about where your first meal is going to come from, you should count yourself as fortunate and use the time to be grateful and enjoy yourself rather than think about everything that’s not working out because trust me, there’s someone out there who is suffering way more than you are so it’s good to remember that.

 

Pooja- Very true, very true. It’s always about perspective? You look at yourself and you think you’re the worst person. Yeah. So, from what you’ve said so far, I take you to be kind of like a very inspiring person. May I say that? So, do you have any lessons from your life?

 

Krishna- I wouldn’t be as presumptuous or I wouldn’t use that. I think I make as many mistakes as anybody else and I don’t mean to be an inspiration to anybody or anything like that but I believe in one line which is, if you are going to spend time talking to me, if somebody is going to be with me, at the end of that experience, they need to walk away saying “Okay, I’m glad I did that. I feel better having talked to him and spent time with him”. If they’re going to walk away saying “Oh my God, now I feel even worse and I feel like now I am thinking about things and worrying about things which I wasn’t worrying about earlier”, then I’ve failed because you’re spending your time with me. You’re giving me your attention, your time. You’re investing in me so if that investment isn’t going to pay off for you, or if I’m not going to try and make that investment pay off for you then it’s a problem, the way I see it. So, I just try and make sure that anybody I’m with just has a good time there. If they can walk away feeling better about themselves or a situation, then I’m very happy about it.

 

Pooja- But a lot of people don’t admit that they make mistakes, right? Yeah, I understand it’s a learning curve but it takes a lot to own upto your mistakes and I can see that you’re doing that, so I’m very proud of you for that.

Krishna- It’s something that I think just frees you. Once you realise that you’ve made a mistake and admit to that and say sorry, say sorry to whoever that mistake has affected, including yourself, I think it frees you to see how you can move forward and make things better rather than try to cover it up or lie or hide or blame others. It just creates more problems. The laziest way to deal with something you’ve done wrong is to admit it, say sorry and move on and I’m a very lazy person so I just do that.

 

Pooja- Okay, that’s nice. As with any art form, writing is a way of expressing your feelings, right? And expressing your feelings is a very hard thing. How do you know that they are reciprocated?

 

Krishna- Exactly. I think even in a friendship or in a relationship or with your family, when something is not okay, the most difficult thing to do is sit down and tell the other person what you’re feeling. You know while you’re doing that, that the other person may have a completely different point of view or that they may have a different take on what you’re saying or you could be misunderstood. A hundred things could happen. I think creating a piece of art is doing that every single day, every single minute. You are trying to express yourself, which is a very very difficult thing to do. It’s because you need to understand things about yourself that you may not want to face, you have to sometimes say things that you’re embarrassed to say. You say those things and there’s no guarantee that those things are going to make the impact that you want. It’s just like that. Sitting down with your boyfriend or girlfriend at the end of a relationship which has not been going very well saying “Listen, this is what the problem is and this is what I think we should do to fix it”, it’s tough to do that, look the person in the eye and do that and knowing that the other person may just disagree with you. So, that’s what it’s like.

Pooja- Yes. Very true, very true. But talking about expressing your feelings, right? We’ve known that a lot of writers speak when they face mental illnesses, right? Like depression, anxiety, and like you said, it’s very hard to cope with. But on the other hand, writing can also help to maintain mental health. How do you think that dynamic works?

 

Krishna- Okay, let me give you a very simple analogy, I think it’s going to tie into my point about being as mentally strong as you can. There are two steps, I think- The first step, even more so than writers, the people who really face a lot of this problem where their creativity sort of gets out of hand are actors, comedians, you know. They really can lose sight of reality because of their craft and also because of the recognition that comes with it, and I think what you need to realise, first of all, is that you need to be in control of your craft, you can’t let your craft control you. So, this is something I do to make myself feel better and because it gives me joy. It’s not something I’m doing so that it can overwhelm me. 

 

So, I think having that distinction of making sure you’re the one in charge really really helps, and secondly- if things are going well, don’t get carried away by the praise. Like if someone tells you “Oh, you’re fantastic. You can do this, you can do that.. You were so amazing in this, you were so amazing in that.. This piece was amazing”, just nod your head, be gracious about it, politely smile but don’t let it get to you and don’t make yourself out to be anything more than you are, which is just a human being, with problems and failings and all of that. Similarly, when someone comes and tells you “Listen, this was absolute crap”, don’t take it to heart and say “I’m useless, I’m this, I’m that” and get overwhelmed and sad and all of that. Your art is not you. Keep it distant from you. In that distance, make sure that you are controlling it, and don’t let it overwhelm you. Those are the things I would definitely say would help make sure that you are getting the best out of your craft and not getting the worst out of it.

 

Pooja- So, what do you have to say to artists around the world who are struggling for inspiration?

 

Krishna- Understand what makes you excited. For example, I know that I see a lot of books, paintings, films, series, music- I hear a lot of music- and it’s very popular, it’s very acclaimed but just because it’s popular or acclaimed, I say “Okay, I’m going to do something like this”, it’s not going to work out. Rather, you can experience as much stuff as you can and say that “Okay, for some reason, this strikes a chord with me. There’s something about this that I relate very deeply to”. Sometimes, it could be something that’s not successful. It could be something that nobody knows about and some of the things that people actively dislike but you say there’s something about it that I can relate to, and from there your inspiration will come. 

 

When you find what is exciting you, you will find your inspiration because you will say “Okay, I understand a little bit more about who I am. This is making me understand who I am.” The more you understand about who you are, the more easily you will be able to create art that is unique to you and that you are excited about creating. As long as you are living the life of someone else or trying to be someone else, it’s going to be tough for you to try and come up with inspiration and create anything that truly resonates with who you are. When you realise who you are, and that comes from identifying the things you like, you are able to create a lot more content which is more original and which you are more interested in creating as well. 

 

Pooja- So, hats off to you! I understand why people loved ‘Notes of a Dream’. I have one last thing to ask you- if there is one word you would like to say to artists, artists all over the world, maybe writers, painters, sculptors, just one word- what would you say to them?

Krishna- Believe.

Pooja- Okay, any reason behind that?

 

Krishna- It’s because unless you’re going to believe in what you’re creating, it’s going to be hollow. I’ll give you an explanation about how it works for me. When I first started writing something, for a long time, I would just be like okay, I can’t show people this. I can’t show people this. It’s not yet ready. It’s not yet good enough. But suddenly comes a moment when that changes to “I can’t wait for people to see this”. I’m so excited to show people this. The moment that changes is when you start believing. 

When you start believing that your concept, your idea, your writing, your language, whatever you want to say, suddenly something happens that makes you believe that it is working for you and it resonates with who you are, that is when it is possible for you to take the next step. Trust me, there are a lot of times when I’ve said “Okay, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, I need more time” and I’ve never come to believe in it and I’ve never finished it. It didn’t happen because I’ve never fully believed in it. Of course, then again, I go back to it after some months or sometimes, after some years, and then I suddenly say “Okay, this is actually quite good” and I start believing in it and the story changes but until you believe in what you’re saying, don’t expect anybody else to believe in it. Also, until you can see something happening, again, how can the Universe or God make anything happen for you until you can see it clearly? And for you to see it clearly, you have to believe in it. 

Let’s move onto art. You see someone who you think is really attractive. You think they could be your boyfriend/girlfriend. Until you want them to be your boyfriend/girlfriend, until you believe that you are good enough to be with them, are you even going to start talking to them? Until you believe that the situation is possible, how can anything happen? You won’t even go and say “Hello”, you won’t even go and say “Listen, I feel this way about you” or if you’re applying for a job or you’re applying to a University, until you think you’re good enough, you’re not going to want to apply to it. 

I have been told this repeatedly in pitches, they have been like “Listen, we don’t know what you are seeing in your head right now..” I sold ‘Notes of a Dream ‘ on this. Before I had written a single word but I knew the concept, I believed in the concept, I went to them and said “Listen, this is what I want to do”. And they didn’t ask me for a sample or anything. They just said “Listen, you clearly believe in this concept. We can see that you’re passionate about it. Go ahead with it. We’ll support you”. So, I think until you can see yourself in a certain situation, the Universe cannot make it happen. So, when I say “believe,” all I’m saying is, see the situation that you’re dreaming of because dreams without belief cannot become reality. It’s dreams plus belief that equal reality. It’s very simple math. So, if you’re just going to believe in yourself without a dream, then nothing can happen. But again, if you have a dream without belief, it can’t happen either. So, it needs to be a balance of both.

 

Pooja- Wow, that was so nice. Thank you so much for your time, Krishna. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and I picked up a lot of lessons today, actually. I learnt about perspective, I learnt about how to believe in yourself, as we just discussed and I learnt about the struggles that one might face in life, not just about writing, not about just with an artist but general life, right? It was very enlightening for me. Thank you so much.

 

Krishna- Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you as well!

 

Pooja- All the best from LonePack for your journey forward and I’m sure it’s going to be a really

wonderful one. Especially your love for experimenting and your love for life, I can tell.


Krishna- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- Healing from the Grief of Loss by Suicide ft. Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan

The grief of losing someone often leaves a lasting impact on one’s life. Life changes in ways we could never anticipate. When it feels like the rest of the world has just kept going, we may find ourselves to be broken and struggle in our attempts to “move on” from the loss. So how do we pick up our broken pieces and find the strength to move forward?

 


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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today, we have with us Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan. A suicide loss survivor herself, Dr. Sangeeta is a mental health activist and educator. Through her work, she endeavours to engage with as many people as she can, to work together to prevent young suicide through raising awareness and reducing stigma.

Welcome, Dr. Sangeeta.

Dr. Sangeeta-  Thank you, Valerie.

Valerie- Before we start, I would like to issue a trigger warning as this podcast delves into suicide and the process of dealing with loss due to suicide. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to stop listening, and do seek professional help in case you find yourself struggling to deal with mental health issues.

So Dr. Sangeeta, you’re a qualified trainer in youth mental health first aid and are passionate about shattering the stigma around mental health and suicide. Could you tell us what drove you to become an activist for mental health awareness and youth suicide prevention?

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes. Thank you very much, Valerie for doing this interview and thank you to LonePack for all the good work that it does. It’s really required in India and all over the world, actually that we raise the understanding of mental health illnesses. I came to it through a very personal tragedy. My beautiful son, Sagar, was only twenty and this was six years ago when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within ten days, he was gone. I had no idea, we lived in the same house. He had seen the doctor two days before that and I thought everything that could be done was being done for him but neither he nor the doctor, nobody said anything about suicide. 

I realised that it is such a taboo subject that even doctors don’t know how to talk about it, leave alone our society. You know, doctors are only people after all, right? And we are products of our society. If nobody is talking about it, then doctors are also not because they do not know how to, it’s not in the syllabus. Then I realised that it was down to people like me, who were directly affected by it, to talk about it because otherwise, it’s just going to be in silence forever and being bereaved by suicide is such a painful place to be and it is so hard to keep going back there and talking about it, but I don’t have anything else to do now. So, this is what I do and I hope that it will save lives and bring closeness between people and make this world a better place. 

 

Valerie- We are very sorry to hear about your loss and about Sagar but we’re also very thankful to you that you’ve taken that experience and you’ve decided that you want to change things and you want to bring about change. You help bereaved families but you also spread awareness so that something like this could be prevented in the future. That is a great initiative, you know? To come from darkness and to be able to want to spread light to the people around, to prevent a situation like this from happening else. 

So, when we talk about suicide, guilt is a major part of the grieving process, when it comes to friends and family. We have a lot of questions, a lot of ‘What Ifs’. What if we had paid more attention? What if we had noticed the signs? What if we could have saved them? because it’s difficult to fathom the circumstances that led up to it. In fact, as a suicide loss survivor myself, there were many instances where I often felt guilty about experiencing happiness after the loss – it felt wrong to me to feel happy anymore. Many others often struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves when the guilt gets overwhelming. Is this expected? How can we manage this overwhelming amount of guilt that we feel?

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s a very important question because losing someone to suicide does leave you with a mountain of guilt and you almost believe that it’s your fault that they died. I still believe, I have to tell myself that he was really ill, he was under the care of a doctor, you were not his doctor, you were just his mother. He was twenty years old and so it was up to him what he wanted to share and what he didn’t want to share, and these are very personal feelings, they’re very difficult to talk about because actually, we don’t know how to create space for these conversations. We don’t know how to be with someone’s angst and uncertainty and we’re not comfortable with this subject. And I think there is so much self blame associated with it, even with the individual who’s feeling suicidal. They may be ill, they may be on medication, they might be having very valid reasons for feeling suicidal but still, they blame themselves for feeling like that, which also stops them from talking about it. 

If somebody has diabetes or cancer, they don’t blame themselves, right? They just have it. Whereas with mental illnesses, there is a whole other dimension of “flawness”, that there’s something wrong with this person, almost something wrong with their character. Which is not true. But because that is how the society looks at it, that’s how they look at themselves, and that stops them from asking for help. So we have to break that shame and blame cycle and know that if they don’t tell you, you can’t know, right? We’re not mind readers. Our mind is constantly trying to find a reason, but there is no “one reason”. It’s a very complex issue, there are usually multiple reasons and they all come to a confluence at one point where the emotional pain that they suffer gets too much and if they can’t have a constructive, meaningful conversation or even be heard and understood at that point, especially in young people, it can be quite an impulsive decision, which is taken very quickly and in a very short time. So it’s a very time critical intervention that we need to make. Firstly, we need to increase our awareness and our ability to create spaces for these conversations, which is what you are doing today so good job, thank you.

 

Valerie- Thank you. But you know, we talked about guilt and obviously there are questions that we have and they have very complex answers, which is why it’s only natural for us to blame ourselves. But it takes you down such a downward spiral that you cannot get out of. One thing is telling yourself that you’re not at fault but it doesn’t really do much for you. So what would you say we can do to get out of this guilt that we make ourselves feel?

Dr. Sangeeta- So the first is to recognize it as guilt. To recognize that what I’m feeling is guilt. Very deep guilt. And then to know that yes, these are my thoughts but I don’t have to believe in them a hundred percent. Also to acknowledge that what you’re going through is possibly the most painful loss . Part of me still believes that it’s my fault that he’s no more. But I still have to be kind to myself, you know? I have to acknowledge that okay, it has happened. I didn’t do it, right? I am sure I could have done more, it’s true I could have done more but I cannot go back. What I can do is recognize it as a thought, let it not become a belief, and hold myself with kindness and know that if I could, he would live for a million years. If I could. If my love would be enough, he’d live for a million years. But I can’t reverse that. All I can do is honour his memory, keep loving him, keep doing some good work in his name and keep being kind to myself because I am also suffering and I have been through a lot. Acknowledge that. 

Valerie- I liked that you said that we have to validate our own feelings there. You say we should admit that it’s guilt but also find a space for yourself where you are kind to yourself and you don’t bog yourself down by that immense amount of guilt that you’re feeling.

Dr. Sangeeta- And sometimes, you just need to sit with it, you know? I think for me, meditation has really helped because I can just breathe through it. Just sit and breathe through it. Whatever it is, it shifts. It moves sideways a little bit, it gets less intense. And you know, we need to hold our poor little broken hearts like a little baby, you know? With gentleness, and just literally pat it lovingly and say “You’ve been through a lot”. Be our own best friends.

 

Valerie- So, when we talk about the processes of grieving, everyone has a different grieving process. A different method that helps them cope with the loss in the best way that they can. There are very different kinds of people. I was somebody who often found comfort in the pain, at a point. And I decided not to move on from the incident, you take it as a way of honoring the memory of the person. There are also people who decide to focus on what lies ahead and outwardly, they may seem to move on from the loss much faster. 

In addition to all of this, you have the aftermath of a loss due to suicide. You have survivors who are unable to openly share their grief because as you said, there is a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and judgement surrounding the topic, to a point where even doctors do not have conversations about it. Does the grieving process differ for suicide loss survivors? How can they be supported through their grieving process? 

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, so I think everybody grieves completely differently, like you said. Even in the same family, if the father and the mother have lost the same child, they have lost a different relationship. He might have lost his cricket buddy and he might have lost her future grandchildren, you know? So, it’s very different for each one and it’s all okay. Just do whatever you need to do, is what I would say. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this. Just do whatever feeds your soul, whatever sustains you. There is no formula, there is no recipe. I would say spend time with people who cherished that person, who are not afraid to talk about him. Share their memories lovingly. When something like this happens, you really find out who your friends are and it’s really useful because then you don’t waste your time. You stick with people who understand your loss and who are not about gossiping and judging and making life more difficult for you. 

There are many many ways in which people can support somebody who has lost someone to suicide. By reaching out, not being afraid to name the person, celebrate them, talk about them in a way like they were a cherished part of our lives. Not get into why and how and why not. Nobody knows why. They probably did not know why. We don’t know. There’s no point going in “Why”s or “How”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this beautiful person has gone. So, we need to create space to listen to them. They might want to repeat the same story over and over and over again, which is okay. Create space for that, listen patiently. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t make platitudes like “Be strong”, “He’s in a better place” and all that is rubbish, really. It doesn’t help. 

I think there is no right or wrong, I would say. Just do whatever makes sense to you and don’t criticize the other person’s way of dealing with it because they are doing what works for them. But I think it does put a huge strain on relationships, on families. It completely shifts family dynamics, and that’s normal as well. There is no such thing as a perfect human being or a perfect relationship so I think if we have basic compassion for ourselves, then we can have compassion for other people. It’s very easy to get into the blame game with this- “you said” “she said”, you know? But actually, I think this is really a time to be kind to all those who are left behind because they are all suffering. 

 

Valerie- So, in addition to what we spoke about, about there being stigma and shame surrounding it and that being a reason to not talk about the person you lost, there is also this whole thing of, of course, it is a very personal loss for you but you also feel like you are the only one going through this and so nobody is going to understand what you’re talking about and nobody is going to get it at the same level of sensitivity that you have for that person. I rethink that also makes it very difficult conversation and I think it’s good that you are here with us, sitting and talking about your experience and we can discuss because there are a lot of people here who think they are alone in their suffering, who do not find it comfortable to talk to somebody who hasn’t lost a person because you feel like they’re not going to get what you’re saying. So I think that is another reason why people do often not talk about it and suffer in silence but I think it’s great that you’re coming out and the fact that you share your story with so many people is going to be very encouraging. 

Dr. Sangeeta- I find that it’s true that we don’t feel understood. It’s true. Imean, how can anybody else understand what it’s like unless you’ve been through it? I don’t blame other people for not understanding. I don’t expect them to understand and I hope they never have to understand what it feels like. But I would say that it’s very important for people who have had similar experiences to get together because there is an organization called SOBS here (in the UK), which is Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, where people meet. 

All the people who are there have lost some family member or friend to suicide and in that room, there is so much understanding because everybody has come with a similar experience, it’s peer support. There are no experts in that room, no therapists, nothing. But people find so much comfort there and I think that can only happen if people come forward and put their hand out to other people who have had similar experiences, get together. Now it’s possible to do it across towns and countries even. And I think, have a peer support group where people can come and be with other people who have had similar experiences. It’s really been helpful for me and many others. And of course, I also have a therapist and I’m very grateful that I can afford one. I’ve been seeing her every week for two years now and that’s a very healthy thing to have because it gives you an insight into yourself.

Valerie- I also liked that when we talked about how people can be supportive, you said do not ask too many questions, do not jump to conclusions, just bethere, be compassionate and listen. And I think that is extremely important when somebody is opening up to you and when they’re trying to share their grief with you.

Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah.

 

Valerie-  When we lose someone to suicide, like we talked about, there are a lot of unresolved questions and we are just left trying to make sense of it. It’s a common emotion for people to feel anger and unforgiveness towards the person we lost, for leaving us. But these emotions can come in the way of our path to healing. How would you say we should deal with these emotions? How do we pick up our broken pieces and find meaning after loss? How do we give ourselves the strength to move forward? 

Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s very complex- grief- because of the undertones of severe judgement. Often, it’s not a voluntary act. It is a measure of someone’s emotional pain, that they are in so much pain that they cannot bear to stay on the planet. How much pain do you have to be in to do that? Because we, as human beings, are not designed to do that. We are designed to protect ourselves- we can’t touch hot things and immediately withdraw, we cannot tolerate the smallest cut on our hand. We are designed to defend ourselves if we go and do something like that. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to entertain the idea of staying alive? It’s beyond our comprehension if we haven’t felt that way. So, I feel great compassion for Sagar that he had so much pain, poor chap, you know? And he walked around hiding it because he thought nobody would understand. How terrible, isn’t it? for any to have that much pain. 

I grieve not just for his death, I grieve for his suffering. So, there is no place for anger. I think if we can have compassion for their suffering. There is no place for anger where there is compassion. I can only talk from my experience and so, there is no scope for judgement. If we drop all judgements, there is no right or wrong, it’s a death. That’s all it is. It is a death. All these undertones of judgement is what makes it unbearable. “How could he do this to me?” He didn’t do it to you. It was his life. He couldn’t bear it. So, it’s not about me now. It’s not about me. It’s about him, it’s about what he could not say that he should have been able to say. That as a society, we should have created space for. That his doctors should have known how to talk about. It’s about that. There is no right or wrong in this, you just have to face it for what it is and asee how we can help people who are in that position. So, yeah. What was your question? Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.

Valerie- Yeah, so I was asking how we should deal with these emotions because it’s only natural when you’re left with no answers, you do not know what is going on. You can feel unforgiveness and as you said, you have to look at it with compassion, you know? Replace that emotion with compassion because obviously, the person went through a lot of pain before they took the step that they did. My question is, how do we pick ourselves up after an experience like this? How do we find meaning after the loss and how do we give ourselves the strength to push forward and move on in life?

Dr. Sangeeta- Well, like I said earlier, there are no general answers. It has a lot to do with who you are and what you do. So, when Sagar passed, I started writing a blog on the day he passed, because I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit there and let this day come and go unmarked. It was the most shocking and painful day of my life, and his life, probably. I was struck by how many people don’t know this can happen to them or their loved ones. I started writing a blog and also, it was my way of really immortalizing him. I could not allow him to just go without anything, you know? The world has to change. It was my ego as well, that it was my son. My beautiful, darling son and how can this happen? It was a mixture of anger and everything, and I just put it into my writing. I wrote every day for a thousand days. That was my way. The blog is called ‘Kids are Gifts’. I still write it. Once every ten or twelve days, I write something on it. It was my way of spending time with Sagar, it was my way of venting my anger. It was where I wrote down all the things that I learnt along the way, where I wrote down how I felt. It was a friend, it was a bride that I hung my days on, you could write at the end of the day. It was my reward, it was my punishment, it was everything. I put my energy into my blog initially, just because it gave me something to do. 

It’ll be different things for different people. Slowly, I found that cycling really helped. It’s really meditative. The wheels go round and round and you could just empty your mind and just the repetitiveness of it and you can feel your breathing and your heart and you could just be in your body for a little while. Cycling helped, writing helped, then I found nature helped. I joined flower arranging lessons and I learnt to do Ikebana, which is a Japanese art of flower arranging- it’s very technical, it’s very minimalistic, beautiful floral art.  Then I started doing some mental health work, and when I was a little bit better, then my phone number was given to other people whose children were either ill or they’d lost somebody and I would spend lots of time on the phone with them. So, I think if you start using that love, guilt is only love basically, turned upside down. If you tell yourself “What I’m feeling is love” and I need to channel it into something and find whatever that something is for you. I think by using your hands and your body into something, doing something. 

Also, take it as learning. Let death be your lesson, let cause be your teacher. The guilt also was about things that I had done. I used to work really long hours and I always thought that when I came home, he’ll be there. I took him for granted. And one day he wasn’t. I really stopped and thought “What else am I taking for granted?”.  I’m taking my health for granted, I’m taking my parents for granted, I’m taking my husband for granted, I’m taking my cat for granted! So, it made me think about what I can do differently. How can I live differently now? This is almost like a second life for me. I’ve been given a second chance to live better. I can turn that guilt around and learn from it. This is what I didn’t do right. I didn’t know how to have those conversations. Now I know how to have those conversations. So, do whatever you can with it but take this as an opportunity to learn and to grow and to expand.

Valerie- Yeah, I think what you said is very important. Obviously, you’re suffering a lot, you’ve gone through a lot, you still are going through a lot. But you take that as an experience and you learn from it. You learn how to be more sensitive to the people around you, you learn how not to take things for granted, and you also try doing something about it. You take that one experience you had and if you can help people around you, then there can be nothing better. You can’t replace what you’ve lost but you can certainly try to help make this place better.

Dr. Sangeeta- And you know why I can do that? Because there’s not a bone in my body that is ashamed of anything. I am so proud of Sagar. I am so proud of him. I loved him before he was born and I will love him forever. He was an absolute star! I’m not ashamed of him at all. I know he tried his best. I know he tried his best.

Valerie- I think it’s important for everyone who has suffered a loss like this to understand that and not look at them any differently than they did before they passed away.

Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah. Like people fight with cancer, they say “battle with cancer”. This is also a battle but it’s invisible. We all have to develop eyes to see it. 

 

Valerie- On this World Suicide Prevention Day, what are some things that have happened over the past year or so that give you hope that things might be changing? Just like you said, we have to develop the eyes to see it, we need to create spaces for conversations like this. And what do you hope to see in the coming years? 

Dr. Sangeeta- I see hope in you! I think over the last few years, the conversation has grown. I know that through this COVID time as well, people have been thinking about each other’s mental well being. So I think overall, there is more openness. I know some celebrities in India like Deepika Padukone and all those people have come forward with their struggles. I was very very saddened to hear about the suicide of the young Bollywood actor, very very sad. The way the media and everybody has dealt with it has been so bad. Everything that should not be done had been done. It really saddened me to see that but I think the conversation has grown, definitely. 

For the future, my hope is that it will continue to grow and that all the judgements that are attached with mental illness and suicide will be taken away and people will treat mental illness just like a physical illness and not treat it as a character flaw because there is true suffering in that and I have seen it. So I do hope that people will understand that these are very complex issues, that the brain is a very delicate organ, that the adolescent years are very complex years. From the age of ten to twenty-five is adolescence and yet, medicine is split into pediatrics and adult medicine. There is no such thing as adult medicine. Those years need a lot of attention. Schools and colleges, parents, everybody needs to educate themselves about the delicacy of those years and how the brain works. 

I’m hoping that your work and mine, last year, I was at a conference in India and we did a mental health workshop for seventy medical students, and they’ve all gone back to their respective medical schools from all over India and some of the foreign countries as well, from Asia and they’ve all gone back to their medical schools with more awareness and they;’re more connected with their communities. They’re watching out for warning signs, they’re growing these conversations, so yeah. There is hope. Just keep doing what we do.

 

Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m sure this has been a conversation that will help a lot of people because you have shared an experience. You’ve not just talked about the dos and don’ts of how to deal with grief but you shared an experience with us. It’s been very emotional for me to talk to you about this but I wanna thank you for agreeing to do this podcast with me and I hope that we can tell people to be more sensitive, to look out for warning signs, and to spread awareness about something like this. To keep conversations open. To know how to have conversations more importantly. I hope that we’ll be able to make a difference.

Dr. Sangeeta- Actually, we forget that one half of having a conversation is listening. At least one half. So I think we need to develop our listening skills more. That’s when we can find out a lot about the other person and have them feel understood.

Valerie- And I hope for everyone who has suffered a loss, that we learn how to pick ourselves up and we learn how to take that experience and change that into something positive for the people around us and for ourselves. 

Dr. Sangeeta- And I would just say to anyone who is in a similar situation to me, know that you’re not alone. There are many other people. I think, if you were to start connecting with other people who are in your position, I think that might be a very rewarding thing to do.

Valerie- Thank you so much, Dr. Sangeeta.

Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you very much, Valerie. I wish you luck in everything you do.

Valerie- Thank you. 

To read Dr. Sangeeta’s blog posts, visit: www.kidsaregifts.org