First of all, congratulations on completing what is often the hardest part of therapy: getting started! For most of us, we don’t usually book that first appointment without something urgent finally bringing – or dragging – us through the door.
There’s no judgment here: I spent years putting therapy off before I finally got started, and it wasn’t until I was working as a receptionist here at Alongside You (literally surrounded by therapists and people seeking therapy every day) that I knew I shouldn’t put it off anymore.
Often, it’s a time of crisis that propels us through the door. For you, maybe your mental health was under enough stress that your physical health was affected. Or maybe you came to realize that your relationships weren’t what you hoped they would be, or maybe something just hadn’t been feeling right in your life. For me, I was in real need of some support in my chronic pain journey, and was looking for some help in giving my frazzled nervous system a breather.
Whatever the reason is, recognizing you need help and getting started with therapy can often be the hardest part. But let’s say you’ve finally had that first appointment, or maybe you’ve even had a few at this point. What happens if the fit with your therapist just isn’t sitting right?
As someone who works behind the scenes in a counselling clinic and attends therapy myself, I’ve discovered that there are a few helpful tidbits to know when it comes to deciding whether your counsellor is the right fit for you. Here are a few of them I’d love to share:
Tips On How To Decide If Your Therapist Is The Right Fit
It’s completely fine if your personality just doesn’t fit with your therapist’s. Therapists come in all kinds of flavours (kind of like ice cream) and it might take a couple tries to find one that works for you (kind of like sample spoons). A good therapist will want the best for you, and that means understanding if you would prefer a different match. Their feelings won’t be hurt – after all, many of our therapists have tried out a few counsellors of their own until they found a match they liked!
Ask yourself whether you feel reasonably comfortable with your counsellor. A few good early indicators are feeling safe sitting in a room with them, feeling heard by them, and knowing that you won’t be judged in your vulnerability.
Though it may surprise you, your counsellor doesn’t need to have many shared life experiences or even a similar outlook on the world in order for your therapy to work! Although it can be an added bonus when these similarities happen, they usually aren’t as necessary as they seem. For instance, some of our most skilled and qualified counsellors who offer assistance to parents don’t have any children themselves. But what they DO have is the training and experience necessary to help you and your kids.
This can sometimes be a mental roadblock for people looking for a new counsellor, and I completely understand. Years ago, I spent some time searching for a new therapist, and as much as I wanted to connect with someone who had experienced chronic pain themselves, that didn’t end up being necessary for me. What it took instead was someone who had the training, skills, and care to help me start to heal my nervous system.
You are allowed at any time to ask your therapist to try a different approach!
I once (very awkwardly) shared with a therapist after our first session that I would do well with a more relaxed and informal approach, and he was able to adjust for our next session together. Of course, that didn’t mean that we stayed in that casual place all the time, but it helped make me comfortable enough at the beginning to lean into the process. Did I enjoy requesting a different approach, you ask? Nopity nope. But was it worth it? You bet.
Not all therapists have the same training or areas of interest. If you’re looking for a particular kind of therapy, make sure to share that early on in the booking process, before you get paired with a counsellor. Clinical fit is one of our top priorities when pairing you with a therapist at Alongside You, and our Client Care Team is trained to match you with a counsellor who has the training, experience or interest that applies to your circumstances. Of course, it’s also totally fine if you don’t know what kind of therapy you’re looking for – for me, it took trying out a couple types before I landed on one that was particularly helpful for me.
Be aware that starting over with a new counsellor will be, well… starting over with someone new. As tired as you may be with going over your history all over again, anytime you meet with a new therapist you’ll have that regular ol’ first appointment, where you’ll go over any details and get to know each other. If you’re wanting a new match this is 100% worth it, but it does mean that we don’t recommend switching counsellors often. We suggest giving your current situation a thorough try, unless you feel that it isn’t the right fit for you anymore.
As for me, I recently booked a first appointment with a new counsellor and as much as I would have loved to just bring along some kind of personal Powerpoint presentation to breeze through my history and jump right into “the therapy”, I know this getting-to-know-you phase is actually an important part of the therapy itself. And I found myself enjoying the appointment and starting that new relationship more than I expected!
If you are feeling uncomfortable or anxious about your appointments, ask yourself: is my anxiety about the therapist, or therapy itself? If you’ve been in counselling before you likely know it isn’t always the most comfortable process. The discomfort you are feeling could be about the overall experience of therapy, rather than how you feel about the therapist themselves. In fact, as time passes and you get closer to working on some of the core issues and more challenging areas of your therapy, you might feel more tempted to withdraw from your therapeutic relationship in order to protect yourself from heading into that discomfort. This can be a very normal instinct, but is often really worth discussing or working through. And this leads us to my last (and most important!) suggestion…
Tell your therapist how you’re feeling!
It can be really helpful for your counsellor to know if you’re unsure that this is the fit for you, or if you’re not sure whether you want to continue. The truth is that your therapist will offer their best help and support when they have your feedback, and I think it’s even fair to say that most counsellors really appreciate these kinds of honest conversations with their clients, and would prefer to have them more often.
If this kind of conversation feels difficult for you, you can always start by telling your counsellor, “There’s something I’d like to talk about, but it feels hard for me to bring up and I’m not sure how to start. Can we talk about our time here together?” This can be a good way to get the ball rolling, and for the two of you to work through your thoughts on your treatment. This way your therapist can help you unpack whatever next steps will be most helpful for you.
How Do I Talk To My Therapist About How I’m Feeling?
So… what now?
The first step it to connect with your current therapist! Feel free to use the example above if you’re not sure how to bring the subject up, and share with them how you’ve been feeling. Together you can start working through whether the best next step is to adjust and try a new approach, or to ultimately get connected with a new therapist.
If you do decide that you would like to try with a new counsellor, please make sure to first let your current counsellor know as a courtesy. Then, your next step would be to connect with our Client Care Team and we’ll help you find a new match. As always, we’ll consider your preferences and needs and do our best to find you a good fit.
If instead you decide to stick with your current counsellor, it could be that this kind of honest conversation is just what your therapy journey together needs!
Either way, this is your time and investment, and you deserve the best possible supports and tools in your walk towards greater health. Our job is to support you as best we can, and we’re honoured to do it.
Director’s note: The following article is written by our Registered Clinical Counsellor, Marcia Moitoso, in conjunction with Bell Let’s Talk Day. If you haven’t met us yet, you’ll find out quickly that we’re about being real. We’re all here because we are on our own journey, and want to help others on theirs. Marcia’s article is a very real, personal account of her own journey with mental health and trauma and how it led her to where she is today. I want to express my gratitude to Marcia for being willing to share her journey with others, and I hope you find it helpful. Please be aware, the article describes some traumatic events that may bring up some emotions while reading. – Andrew
My Journey To Becoming A Counsellor
I came to a career in counselling as part of a long, arduous struggle with my own mental health. I want to share my journey with you as a way to show you that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone, things can get better, and we’re in this together.
My story toward healing really begins at 20 years old, when I hit the lowest low and far more psychological pain than I could have ever predicted. Laying on the bathroom floor of the courthouse after a two-year court battle against the person who sexually assaulted me, I remember thinking this is it, I can’t imagine continuing to live at this point, how can I possibly keep going? Unfortunately, like many of us, I had been through a lot of sexual assault in my early years. I had always felt immense shame about everything that happened to me, believing it was my fault and so I never told anyone how I felt, kept it inside and instead coped with eating disorders, self-harm, and substance use. This last incident in my late teens was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t keep going like this, something had to change or I didn’t think I’d survive.
I wrestled a lot with the urge to give up and give in to self-destructive impulses. One part of me wanted to survive and get better, a second part wanted to give up, and a third part of me wanted desperately to change the world for other women like me. Frankly, that part kind of wanted revenge (or at least justice) too. I think that third part of me is the one that started to carry me toward healing. At this time in my life, I was learning about feminism, and while it made me confront some very difficult truths about myself and what had happened to me and what I was also complicit in, it made me get in touch with all the rage I felt, and my rage (though sometimes overwhelming) motivated me toward change.
It wasn’t – and still isn’t – a straight line. I remember sitting in my very first counsellor’s office week after week and refusing to speak. She was kind enough, she would recommend interesting female empowerment movies and give me little snacks. I liked her, I just wasn’t ready to talk, and I’d had years of learning to push all of my emotions way down and disconnecting from my body and myself. I wasn’t ready for her to change that. She gave me the notes I needed for extensions on my university assignments that I couldn’t write because the flashbacks were so overwhelming, and I was grateful for that. I don’t think I’d have graduated without her. At that time I also started kickboxing at a small gym that quickly started to feel like a family. I didn’t have to talk, which was important to me back then, but I could punch and kick and secretly cry my heart out. It was everything; I started to feel what powerful could feel like.
But as life goes, more devastations occurred that set me off balance and back into my self-destructive behaviours. I left kickboxing and withdrew into my own world ruled by fear and dissociation. My social anxiety got to the worst point it had ever been, and I lost the majority of my friends. This was another point where I could have lost myself completely, but I had managed to retain one friend who wouldn’t let me go despite the many times I disappeared and definitely let her down. During this time I had started to realize that my self-destructive behaviours needed to stop, but I was still unable to ask for help or admit that I had a problem. I got lucky though, one night at about 2am this friend of mine texted me asking if I’d want to go and travel South America for a year by bicycle. I wanted to get as far away from the place where I grew up as possible, so I didn’t even hesitate, I immediately said yes and with very little planning we got out bikes and just went.
The Ride That Changed My Life
Since that time I’ve tried to put my finger on just what it was about that year on my bike that was so healing. I think it was a combination of things. I finally really felt like I had a friend who loved me unconditionally (she also had no choice because we depended on each other for survival, traveling by bike with almost no money). I also started to feel powerful and connected to my body for what it could do for me for the first time, instead of focusing on what it looked like or what other people wanted from it. For the first time my body was mine and it was carrying me thousands and thousands of kilometres just by sheer force and will. I also learned to get in touch with my intuition and figure out which situations felt safe and which ones I needed to get out of right away. I experienced some luck, and happened to meet incredible people in every place I went who reminded me that people actually are fundamentally good and that those few who did some bad things to me are not an indicator of all of humanity. And bonus: I didn’t have access to my unhealthy coping means of choice, so my addictions started to fizzle away.
I met so many people from so many backgrounds, and heard their stories of devastation and transcendence, and slowly I started to share mine too. Hearing about the ways people make meaning from tragedy and find ways to survive and make life beautiful again after being in the absolute gutter of life was healing beyond belief. I learned that suffering is part of living and that it actually connects us to others. We suffer tragedies and then we find each other and we heal together. After hearing from these beautiful people in various towns, I’d always have a day or a few of riding my bike to the next place, getting in touch with my body and mind and processing everything I’d heard. It was in one of these in-between cycling times that I realized I wanted to become a counsellor. It was actually a need. I was in awe of how incredible humans are, and their innate urge to move toward growth and healing, and I wanted to be a part of that for myself and for others.
The Journey Is Ongoing
When I moved back to Canada, I spent several years in personal counselling before going back to school to become a counsellor. I was finally ready to talk and ready to continue the healing that had started on my trip. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and I knew the triggers would come back now that the excitement of cycling from country to country was over. I’m endlessly grateful for the counsellors who helped me. I started in CBT to rework my self-shaming thoughts and my social anxiety, then I moved into somatic trauma counselling to learn how to heal psychologically through the power of my body, and then I continued the trauma processing work through EMDR. I still have sleepless nights with flashbacks but they’re few and far between now, and when they happen, I know how to ground myself, breathe through it, and look for my body’s wisdom to heal and do what it needs to. I still sometimes get urges to go back into those self-destructive behaviours, but I now know what to do with those urges rather than giving in to them. I’ve developed great friendships, thanks to my counsellors who helped me get out of my own way and soothe my social anxiety. And every day I get the massive privilege of walking with my clients on their journeys toward healing. I’m still a work in progress and know I will always be, and so I continue to work on myself, see my counsellor, and challenge myself to talk to friends and my partner when I need to. I’m endlessly grateful to the people who have helped me along the way, and continue to help me. We’re all in this together and we all have the capacity to grow and heal even if it sometimes really doesn’t feel like it.
I hope my story encourages you, and reiterates that we are all on a journey toward hope and healing. If we can help you on your journey, please
This article talks about some skills and strategies to heal the traumatized part of your brain and move toward the intimacy you deserve. If you missed the last article about the ways that sexual abuse/assault impacts intimacy and sexuality, I’d recommend going back and reading that article before beginning this one.
Every nervous system is a little different. What works for one person may not work for another. There are many options for healing trauma and developing a healthy intimate and sex life, so I encourage you to choose options that resonate best with you.
Shift Ideas about Sex
A good place to start might be with the ideas you and your partner(s) hold about sex. Often survivors of sexual assault hold negative beliefs about sex. These beliefs result from parts of our brains confusing sexual assault (violence) with sex (consent, pleasure, equality). The two are not the same, and we need to rewire our brains to reflect this. I recommend having a look at Wendy Maltz’s comparisons chart here https://healthysex.com/healthy-sexuality/part-one-understanding/comparisons-chart/. This will help explain the difference between ideas about sex that come from experiences of abuse, versus healthy ideas about sex.
You can continue to develop a healthy sexual mindset by avoiding media that portrays sexual assault or sex as abuse or talking about sexual attitudes with friends or with a therapist. You can also educate yourself about sexuality and healing through books and workshops. One book I strongly recommend is Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski.
Communication with Partners
This may be the most important recommendation in this article. You cannot have consensual sex without communicating about it. That’s true for anyone, whether they’re an assault survivor or not. Sex remains a taboo subject in our culture, even though sex is very normal and most people have some form of sex at some point in their lives. When things are taboo and not widely talked about and understood, people develop feelings of shame about the taboo subject. Shame lurks in the darkness. This feeling of shame or embarrassment or even just awkwardness keeps many people from talking about sex with their partners despite engaging in sex.
Consent is dynamic: It can be given and withdrawn at any time
All people, and especially survivors of assault/abuse need to be able to give and withdraw consent AT ANY TIME during a sexual or intimate act. Many survivors will experience flashbacks or triggers at various times through physical or sexual activities. Because they don’t feel safe to tell their partner to stop (often out of fear for making them feel bad), they will instead dissociate and push through the sexual experience. When you do this, you are telling your brain and body that what you feel doesn’t matter and that the other person’s pleasure or comfort is more important.
While it may feel frustrating to have to stop mid-sex or mid-kiss or mid-hug because something has triggered you, listening to your body will actually help the healing process go much faster. Each time you override what your brain and body needs, the trauma gets reinforced and the triggers continue to come back. Slower is faster when healing from trauma. This is something partners need to understand. If a survivor is saying no, it’s because they trust you enough to say no, not because they’re not attracted to you. Every “no” is sexy because it’s getting you closer to an enthusiastic, consensual “yes”
Understand and Communicate your preferences
In addition to understanding and respecting the need to withdraw consent at any time, it’s important to talk about sexual preferences. What feels good, what feels neutral and what doesn’t feel good. Communicate when something felt uncomfortable and explore together to find what does feel comfortable. When sex is approached with curiosity and exploration rather than rigidness and shame, it becomes increasingly safe and pleasurable for both parties.
The need to take a break
Sometimes survivors of sexual abuse and assault may need to take a prolonged break from sexual activity. This can happen when the individual is in a relationship or not. The break allows space to focus on healing and figuring out what feels good and what doesn’t without worrying about the anxiety of managing their partner’s advances. When you are ready to engage in sexual activity again, do so when you want it, not when you believe you “should.” You have a right to be an active participant in your own sex life. Communicate your likes and dislikes and give yourself permission to say no at any time.
How to Manage Triggers and Flashbacks
As mentioned above, some survivors will experience triggers or flashbacks during physical touch or sexual activity. Flashbacks and triggers are often thought of as images of the traumatic experience. But they can also be experienced as unpleasant sensations, or a lack of sensation, an experience of disconnection, or an experience of overwhelm. When this happens it’s important to stop whatever is triggering the flashback, i.e. stopping the sexual activity or the physical touch. When you have a flashback, a part of your brain thinks it is in the past when the trauma happened, You need to remind that part of your brain that you are in the present moment and that the danger has passed. Another word for this is “grounding.”
Grounding Strategies/Orienting back to the present moment
Name 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, 1 you can taste
Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8 (or any variation of that where you breathe out longer than you breathe in
Box breaths: in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4 (repeat 4 times)
Stand up and move your body – get the adrenaline out
Run on the spot, go for a walk, jumping jacks
Watch youtube video that makes you laugh (laughter is grounding)
Play a categories game
Say the alphabet backwards
Show these strategies to your partner and do them together
Once you’ve successfully grounded (and give yourself as much time as your nervous system needs for this, remember slower is faster), take some time to rest and find comforts. Your nervous system has just gone through a lot. It can also be good to think about what triggered you and to discuss with you partner how to change that in the future. You may want the help of a counsellor to determine this.
Trauma counselling can really help you to overcome the impacts the trauma has on your life. You may also want to incorporate some couples counselling to help improve communication so that the two of you can work as a team on this.
There are 3 types of trauma counselling that can be beneficial. You may benefit from a mix of all three.
This type of counselling helps you to change the thought patterns and behavioural habits that have formed as a result of the trauma. You will learn to notice the emotions and to change the behaviours and thoughts that tend to come as a result of the emotions. Some examples of this include CBT and DBT.
Emotions and survival responses are physiological. You may notice a tightness in your chest when you feel anxious, a lump in your throat when you feel sad, a pit in your stomach when you feel embarrassed, or any variety of physical manifestations of emotions. When we feel an emotion our bodies are automatically mobilized to do something with it. For example, if you see a grizzly bear, your body might instinctively run or freeze or even try to fight it. You don’t even have to think about it, your brain does it automatically! Your body also knows how to heal from the trauma, but often circumstances prevent us from being able to allow our bodies to do what they need to do. Bottom-up counselling approaches such as EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, or Somatic Experiencing can help you to process the trauma by mindfully allowing your body and brain to do what it needs to do to heal. This will also greatly improve your relationship to your body
Mindfulness Counselling or Practices
Through mindfulness practices you can train your nervous system (brain and body) to become fully present. You learn to notice when triggers are happening while keeping a foot in the present-moment so that you don’t become overwhelmed. With mindfulness you can learn to allow emotions to come and go naturally without being swept away. If you’d like to start mindfulness on your own I’d recommend starting with short 2 minute practices and slowly working your way up. Examples of mindfulness-based counselling include Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
I hope these tidbits can help you get started, or to continue on your healing journey. You deserve a healthy intimate life that includes boundaries, consent, pleasure and joy. Slower is faster; trauma takes time to work through, but it is very treatable, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Note: This article speaks in broad terms about sexual assault and abuse. If you feel overwhelmed at any point reading this article, I encourage you to stop reading (or skip to the section on “grounding”) and allow your body to do what it needs to do to come back to the present. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk, doing some deep breathing, or calling a trusted friend. As this article will discuss, there’s no need to push yourself past the point of overwhelm. Healing can only take place with patience.
Many survivors of sexual assault face difficulties with intimacy and/or sexuality at some point in their lives. While this is a very common experience, it’s certainly not the case for all survivors. Traumatic events affect people in a variety of different ways dependent on each person’s life experiences and their unique nervous systems. This article will focus on the people who do struggle with sex and intimacy after traumatic events. It will show that even though it can feel really hopeless at times, there are some amazing ways forward to achieving a healthy and satisfying sex life. We have some powerful innate abilities to heal trauma, but it often takes patience, support and work to get there.
Understanding the Impacts
Sexuality and the Central Nervous System – Stress and Love
Sexuality is impacted by the emotional systems managed by a very primal part of your brain often called “the reptilian brain.” This part of your brain is responsible for stress feelings as well as love feelings, all of which have helped us to survive as a species. Stress and love are also the main emotions that impact intimacy and sexual desire.
Stress responses are the neurobiological processes that help you deal with threats. Your brain prioritizes one of the following three main components based on survival needs: fight (anger/frustration), flight (fear/anxiety), or collapse (numbness, depression, dissociation).
Love is also a survival strategy; it’s the neurobiological process that pulls us closer to our tribes and bonds humans together. Love is responsible for passion, romance, and joy. It’s also responsible for the agony of grief and heartbreak.
When a person lives through a traumatic event, the stress response in their central nervous system (brain and body) often gets locked into survival mode. It has detected that there is danger and so it learns that it must always be scanning for any sign of danger. As a result, there are two very common reactions to sexual trauma that affect a survivor’s sex life.
Sexual Avoidance/Difficulty Experiencing Pleasure
The main function of the central nervous system is to prioritize survival needs in order of importance. For example, if you can’t breathe, you’re unlikely to notice that you’re hungry until you get oxygen again. Similarly, although love is indeed a survival mechanism (bringing us together with our tribes), the brain tends to prioritize attention to stress over love because stress points to a more immediate threat: the possibility of another dangerous and violent act.
After a sexual assault, sensations, contexts and ideas that used to be interpreted as sexually relevant (like physical touch) may instead now be interpreted by your brain as threats. So sexual situations actually make your brain sound the “danger” alarm bell. Our central nervous systems confuse sex (an act of consent, equality and pleasure) with sexual assault (an act of violence and power over another). Remember, your nervous system’s primary function is to keep you alive and safe, so anything that feels in any way similar to a violent situation from the past will sound your brain’s alarm bell.
Basically, you may be experiencing love or desire, but your brain is still stuck on survival mode. This makes it almost impossible to experience pleasure, desire and closeness.
Engaging in Compulsive Sexual Behaviours
Remember how love is also a survival strategy? It draws us closer to others and makes us feel whole. So instead of stress hitting the sexual brakes, some people get locked into patterns of feeling out of control sexually and having multiple partners. In this case, sometimes the innate survival strategy prioritizes closeness for that feeling of being whole; however, when this is a survival mechanism, it’s often happening from that “collapse” stress response, or a more dissociated place. People stuck in this pattern may experience a brief feeling of relief but may still struggle with the deeper components of intimacy.
Additional common symptoms
sex feeling like an obligation
dissociation during sexual activity/not present
negative feelings associated with touch
difficulty achieving arousal/sensation
feeling emotionally distant
flashbacks/intrusive thoughts or images during sexual activity
engaging in compulsive sexual behaviours
difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship
vaginal pain in women; erectile dysfunction in men
feelings of shame
negative beliefs about sex
This is a short list of reactions, there are many more impacts on a person’s sense of self and experiences in relationships. If you’d like to get a better sense of how your traumatic experiences may have impacted your sex life, you can have a look at Wendy Maltz’s Sexual Effects Inventory here https://www.havoca.org/survivors/sexuality/sexual-effects-inventory/
Remedies: Developing a Healthy Sex Life
This short article was just to give you an idea of some of the many ways that sexual assault can impact intimacy. These impacts sometimes show up directly after the assault and sometimes show up years later.
Stay tuned for the next article which will talk about some of the many ways to heal the parts of your brain that are impacted by the trauma and to help you to find safety and pleasure in intimacy.
A Message From Our Director About Move For Freedom
Since opening in 2015, we’ve been committed to being more than a counselling office or mental health centre. We’ve been focused on providing high quality, evidence-based support for mental health, and we want our reach to be more. We’ve focused on our impact on the community around us locally, and beyond around the globe. To us, it’s about exponential impact; we want what we do to grow beyond our work to speak into the lives of others in a meaningful way. This is why we’ve partnered with Ally Global for their Move For Freedom event, and why we’re so grateful to have associates like John Bablitz on our team who share our vision and commitment, and go above and beyond to make an impact. I’ll let John tell you more about this initiative that we are so pleased to be a part of.
Move For Freedom
On August 15th, Alongside You is participating in an event called Move for Freedom, which will raise funds for a cause that is really close to our hearts. Alongside You is a corporate sponsor for the event, and I will be riding 150 km with a team of people for Ally Global, an organization that works to prevent human trafficking and restore survivors of abuse through local partners in places such as Nepal, Laos, and Cambodia. They provide safe homes, education and job training to help survivors find healing and work towards healthy, independent futures.
This fundraising event is open to anyone: anyone who would like to, can participate in any way they like: you could do a walk, run or ride with your family or a group of friends, organize an all day spike ball marathon, swim, climb – really anything that involves movement. If you’re interested, you can click here for more information. Mostly though, I’d like to talk about Ally, what they do and represent, and why that’s important to us. I’d like to start with a short story.
People Who Have Experienced Trauma Need Our Support
My grandfather, when he was in his eighties, noticed a problem: many folks were challenging themselves to go through addiction recovery and rehab, and so few had a place to land when they got out. This contributed to high relapse rates. Something as simple as work was hard to come by (and a job is only one of many things that a person in recovery might need). My grandfather took all his savings and bought a farm, with the dream of creating a place where those in recovery could come live and work after finishing their time in rehab. The farm would give these people safety, purpose, and connection: growing food for their communities through share programs, and connecting to the land and each other in a positive way. This story is meant to represent the importance of aftercare. We can help someone give up substances or rescue them from the horrible situation of human trafficking, but this is just the very tip of the iceberg.
Kids coming out of trafficking, like all kids, need safety. They need a place where their needs are taken care of, where they know they matter, and where they can grow and connect with others. The trauma these children experience is significant. I find it hard to imagine a situation where you might feel that you or your pain mattered less, or where you felt more unsafe, alone, and disconnected from people who cared about you. Kids – young kids – have every interaction at a crucial age with someone who wants to hurt them, uses them for personal gain, and does little beyond keeping them alive. I don’t think I need to explain the impact that can have on a child’s sense of self; this can be the only reality they know or remember. Being rescued from trafficking is one step, but where do children that often have no connection to family or caring support go next? Survivors are often shunned in their communities, not unlike someone who has just been released from prison in North America might be.
The Importance Of Aftercare
One thing I appreciate about Ally, and that also aligns with the values of Alongside You, is that they understand the importance of aftercare, and they are committed to quality over quantity. They provide children with the basics, like a bed, food, and shelter, but they do so much more: they help connect kids with a caring community. Kids have a “little sibling” and a “big sibling” that they are able to look up to, and be looked up to. They are connected with caring adults who know them and value them for who they are: teachers, counsellors, nurses and others (please take a minute to watch this video, as it brings what I’m saying to life). Especially cool about Ally is that the majority of their staff are “graduates” – many of them were rescued from human trafficking themselves, and might have gone on to get education, and devote themselves to giving back. These individuals have the unique ability to relate to and understand the kids they work with. The community takes the time to understand the impact these kids’ experiences have had on them, which in my experience as a therapist is one of the most vital steps to recovery. The body responds to trauma in ways designed to keep it alive under horrifying conditions, but it is a challenge to come back from that – even if you might come to logically believe you are safe, your body may not be willing to take any risks, and that can severely stunt your ability to be human: enjoying experiences, laughing, connecting, feeling safe. It takes patience, support, and time to process the impact of trauma, and Ally provides that, which I love. There is no fixed structure – when you leave from one of Ally’s warehouses, you are welcome back at any time, and Ally will continue to support your continued growth, perhaps through subsidizing an apartment with some of your peers, or assisting with educational opportunities.
I could say lots more about Ally, but I’ll just stick to one more thing: their system works. Industry standard is about a 60% rate of reintegration – this is considered good. Ally’s project in Nepal has a 92% success rate over 20 years. That’s incredible. They have helped over 600 children as young as 4 or as old as 20, who stay for an average of 10-12 years.
How You Can Help
On a celebratory note, this fundraiser has taken off. Initially we had just set a modest goal to support the needs of 13 children. The outpouring of support has been so great that Ally has begun the process of opening a new safe house in Cambodia that will house up to another 38 rescued children. I have done work with children who have experienced trauma, and working with just one of these children takes an incredible amount of energy and time, and it is deeply saddening to be with children who have not experienced a safe adult who believes in them and reflects back their worth. They survive – children are wonderfully resilient – but they have no ability to thrive. The thought of being able to help provide safety to more kids than I see in a year just by torturing myself for 9 hours on a bicycle (I’m by no means a seasoned rider) gives me a lot of joy.
Though financial donations have a big impact, they are not even the most significant way you can help. We would love to ask that you spread the word! Use your social media, host your own mini-fundraiser, tell even just one person you care about. Awareness is the greatest tool we have to combat human trafficking. You can also participate in other ways the day of the event; if you would like more information please contact me, I would be happy to chat more about this or anything else.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with trauma in any way, we’re here with you. Let us know how we can help.
Yesterday, I took the day off from work. Originally it was scheduled so that I could take my wife to another of her recurrent surgeries for her chronic pain, which thanks to COVID-19, has been cancelled indefinitely. It happened to line up nicely, however, with cabinet install day for our home renovation that is thankfully heading ever so much closer to the finish line. It also coincided with a need that I’ve identified lately – that is, a need for rest. What I didn’t expect is to be spending most of the day feeling sad. For a while, I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, until the question loomed in my mind, “How do I respond to racism?”
You see, I’m one of the ones who is, on most given days, gleefully ignorant about racism. It’s not that I am not aware of it, because I am aware because on different parts of the world I’ve lived in, different ethnic groups I’ve worked with, clients I’ve seen, etc. It is, however, because on any given day, I am not personally subjected to it. In fact, it’s been exceedingly absent in my life. While I was pondering this question about how do I respond to racism all day yesterday, I realized that I can only think of one time in my life where I was keenly aware that I was being treated poorly because of my race. The details of the situation aren’t important here I don’t think, and likely wouldn’t spark any sort of helpful conversation, but it does highlight that in 39 years I can only think of one time where I was very aware of being discriminated against based on my race.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aware of being treated differently, because I have been while travelling. While I would suggest that it’s still not okay, it’s normal, in my experience, to be seen as other when you’re in another country, and even hearing words like gringo if you happen to be white. Or, if you’re living in Ukraine and your friend is from Korea, it’s not uncommon for kids to stop dead in their tracks and stare simply because they’ve never seen an Asian person before.
There’s a massive difference, however, in the experiences I’ve had versus those from whom we’ve all been hearing from in the past few days through the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, and the devastating events around the death of George Floyd. In all of my 39 years, I can only recall one instance where I felt unsafe or threatened as a result of my treatment based on my race.
This is in contrast to some who can’t go 39 days, or 39 minutes, or perhaps 39 seconds between experiences that make them feel unsafe, threatened, or less than.
This makes me sad.
It makes me feel a whole lot of other things, including mad, confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and more. But, if I give myself the time to actually sit with the emotions and discern what I’m feeling, the core of it is sadness.
I’m sad because although I do my very best to honour everyone, regardless of race, colour, creed, ethnicity, or otherwise, I know that at some point I have unwittingly made someone feel this way myself.
I’m sad, because a part of my heritage story is related to culture – my family came to Canada in the early 1900’s because they were literally being killed off for being who they were, and coming to Canada saved their lives. And we still have the same problems over 100 years later.
I’m sad because although my wife and I do our best to raise our girls to love and respect everyone they meet, from all races and creeds and backgrounds, they too will struggle to follow through and will make mistakes, and this will inflict further pain even into the next generation.
We come from privilege. We are white, middle-class, and I am male. This carries a privilege that I am becoming more and more aware of. It carries a responsibility to realize this, and understand this, and do better in our actions as we move forward.
Now, some of you may have just cringed at that last paragraph. Some of you may feel that what I’m saying means that those of us who come from privilege need to be sorry for, repentant of, or similar for the fact that we are white, grew up reasonably well off, and may be male.
That’s not at all what I’m saying, and that’s not at all what privilege means. It simply means that we have some advantages in life that others do not, simply by being born into what we’re born into. With that carries a responsibility to be aware of this, and use this privilege to care for others.
It also doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get what we have, to do what we do, and that we shouldn’t appreciate it, and enjoy it. It simply means that if we didn’t have the privilege we do, it likely would have been harder for us to have the same successes in life.
How Do I Respond To Racism?
Herein lies the problem. I am by no means an expert on race relations, cultural history, sociology, or otherwise. I don’t have any perfect answers to this, or even particularly qualified ones. Instead, here are some thoughts I’ve had over the past few days that hopefully might be helpful to us all as we wrestle with this issue of racism that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon. How do we respond? What do we need right now to make changes?
We Need Grace
Nothing highlights the need for grace more to me right now than writing this article. I know that it is nowhere near perfect, and doesn’t come up with any astounding answers to any of the massive, looming questions many of us have. I know I’ve made mistakes in this article in my own ignorance.
This highlights our need for grace as we navigate this challenging issue, in a challenging time. While this article isn’t authoritative, or perfect, it is honest.
This are simply my honest wrestling with an issue I don’t know enough about. It is the start of an attempt to lend help, even in my own imperfection, with initial thoughts on a complex issue.
I ask for your grace as you read this, and I would ask for grace for us all, from those who are subjected to racism on a daily basis. You don’t deserve this treatment, and we don’t deserve your grace – but, if you can muster some grace for us while we try to change our understanding and our behaviour, we will all hopefully win in the end.
With grace, we can have hope for a different future, one that honours everyone, from all races and cultural backgrounds. A future that holds promise for us all.
We need to feel sad
Understandably, there is a lot of anger right now over the state of race relations, and particularly over the death of George Floyd. And, there should be anger over what happened to Mr. Floyd, and what has happened to far too many people over the years who have been subjected to similar treatment.
In my area of expertise, psychology, we understand generally that anger is a basic emotion (one of the 6 basic emotions according to the Gottman Institute). Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion – based on underlying emotions that aren’t expressed.
One of the most common source emotions for anger that I see, particularly in men, is sadness. I know for myself, I am far more likely to express anger than I am sadness. It’s not particularly socially acceptable in North America for men to express sadness, but it is much more socially acceptable (if only for being more common) to be angry.
The problem is that very few productive conversations happen through anger and the expression of anger. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it just isn’t as effective in communication. If someone is angry with us, our back usually goes up and we become defensive. Very rarely is our response to ask something like, “Can you help me understand why you’re angry, please tell me more.” Instead, our fundamental biology kicks in through our limbic system and we go to defensive mode, and most likely, enter into our fight-or-flight stance (or freeze for that matter).
What happens, then, if we embrace the underlying sadness? I’d suggest it instructs us better (I can easily describe right now why I’m so sad about all of this versus if you asked me in the angry moments to describe why I’m angry), and it’s more effective in communication. If someone tells us they’re sad, we’re far more likely to respond in curiosity and kindness wanting to know more, simply because our limbic system isn’t firing.
“Anger is valid and ok, but we shouldn’t gloss over the underlying sadness.”
We need to educate ourselves
This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s still the truth. We are woefully uneducated as a whole about racism, no matter what our background is. This is where I will plead ignorance regarding resources because I’m at the stage of doing my best to find out what some of the most helpful resources are.
There are two main reasons that we need to educate ourselves: to understand, and to reduce pain.
While I am early on in my journey toward education on this subject, I did come across this article that lists a number of resources that I have seen posted many, many times and seem to be helpful. Our very own Rebecca Farnell posted the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor on her Instagram feed and it seems like it would be a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more. I am continuing to look to find resources that are suggested by people who know far more about this than I do. I’ll update this post as I find more resources as I hope it will be helpful to others. The second reason we need to educate ourselves is because when it comes to pain, the inevitable result of racism, current pain science research shows that it is one of the greatest modifiers of the pain we experience.
Since I do have a particular interest in chronic pain and the psychological management of pain, I was reading The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer yesterday to try to find some resources for a client. In this book they explain that in terms of physical pain, embracing bioplasticity and education about pain can adapt the body to reduce pain and disability and increase life satisfaction (p.30). They also state that bioplasticity is based on the research on neuroplasticity which is the research showing that our brain is able to change over time, no matter our age.
What we do know, is that physical pain and emotional pain act the same way in the brain, and hit the same receptors. We have documented data on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. It seems to me that if education can reduce our physical pain, it should help our emotional pain. If we know what is happening, we can respond differently, and this can change the impact on our neurobiology.
We need to connect
More than ever, we need to connect around this issue. We need to learn together, do better together, change together. I’m convinced that the solution to our problem with racism lies in human connection. It’s going to be a long road, but connection is where we start.
If we connect, we can learn from those who are hurting and change our behaviour. If we connect, those who are hurting can understand the perspective of the perpetrators and what they are trying to do to change, thus reducing their pain. Note well, this is not to excuse the perpetration, it is to understand one another’s positions and the efforts being made to change for the better, and to reduce pain in the meantime.
If we connect, we can reduce pain. I remember a study that Sue Johnson mentioned once (and I’m actively trying to find the study), where subjects participated in a random controlled trial on secure relationships and pain response. From memory, they had three conditions:
Subject enters the room, is shocked with electricity, and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, a random person is also sitting in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, another person they have a safe, secure relationship with is also in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
In that third condition, the study found that they could get the pain response down to almost zero. Let’s remember, the other person in the room did nothing other than sit in the room with them.
This is how powerful safe, secure human connection is. If we can find ways of doing this in the midst of our pain around racism, we stand a chance to weather the storm while we try to make the changes we need to make to do something about it.
Our commitment at Alongside You
I hope it goes without saying that everyone is welcome at Alongside You. We embrace all races, cultures, and backgrounds at our clinic. Our staff and associates come from all backgrounds, as do our clients. Our intent is to welcome anyone and everyone and that they would feel loved, and cared for.
I also understand that we are not perfect, and we too make mistakes. Here is my commitment as the Director of our clinic – if anyone has had, or in future has any concerns about how they are treated by our clinic for any reason, and particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, please contact me directly and I will sit down with you personally to listen, to learn, and to see what if anything needs to change at our clinic.
Safety, security, compassion, and respect are core to our values and I commit to doing anything I can do ensure that these values are communicated to every client by our words, our actions and our policies.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with racism in any way, we’re here with you in the middle of it. Let us know how we can help.