Transformational Crisis and Renewal

Presented by Douglas Ross on behalf of Renew at “Making Thriving a Reality: Towards and Beyond Mental Health Recovery”, University College, Cork. Douglas Ross co-founder of Renew with Dara White. Published here with the permission of Douglas Ross.

Transformational crisis is the process by which a person is able to embrace the experience of severe distress and move through it. By embracing distress, we can see the experience as one of healing rather than one of illness. Symptoms are pointers to the areas of our inner lives that need resolution. If we can see our distress in this context, we can do the healing work necessary to bring about a re-organisation of our psyches to a higher level of functioning than we have experienced before. This is renewal.

The renewal model recognizes that each person is a unique and complex individual. Our bodies, minds and spirits do not operate independently of one another. When we become distressed or overwhelmed, we need integrated support and healing of the underlying condition. Exclusive reliance on medication to reduce symptoms and alleviate pain in an inadequate response to a complex problem. This is not to say that alleviation of pain should not be part of the healing process. Achieving a good working relationship with pain is what is important.

If someone suffers physical trauma, we will rightly and compassionately want to offer pain relief, but not to the extent that we render the person numb or unconscious. The medical team in the A&E will benefit from the person being able to describe where the pain is, what it feels like, how it reacts to various stimuli, etc. and they will be helped by a knowledge of how the injury was sustained. Once the underlying physical condition is ascertained, the compassionate response may be to heavily sedate the sufferer to ensure complete rest and stillness for a short period to overcome shock and allow the healing process to begin. As the pain medication is reduced, pain may return and this forms vital clues to what still needs to be healed. Many sophisticated techniques and technologies will be used to get at the root of the problem.

The renewal model starts with the perspective that distress comes about as a result of our life experiences. If we have, for one reason or another been unable to come to terms with an injury to our personhood, or we are particularly sensitive to what is going on around us, we may become overwhelmed. As with physical overwhelm (trauma) the severe pain may begin to point us in the direction of the source. Like an accident victim, screaming and writhing in pain, we may need to get some urgent pain relief and sleep. However we need to let emotional pain and our non-ordinary consciousness return to direct us towards the source of the pain. In renewal we have to be cautious and vigilant in using medication for pain management, while always having compassion for the sufferer. None of us can possibly know what level of pain another human being can tolerate at any time. In dedicated humane transformational environments like Diabasis and Soteria we know that medication was found to be unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. Why was this? It was because they provided safe, homely, welcoming environments. Each person’s process was supported and respected. There was freedom to go through your process; to express and have accepted all of one’s thoughts and feelings. And residents were young people going through their first episode, so they had not developed any pre-conceptions or institutional behaviours. Loving friendship and compassionate support through periods of overwhelming distress saw many people through the darkest and strangest times of their lives. At the moment, dedicated care environments of this type are not available to us. To establish such a residential model is currently only an aspiration. In Renew we have made a strategic decision that it is not our current task to bring a residential renewal model to fruition. Instead it is our aim to develop a community of people that will support each other through distress. In our present state, we are not able to undertake emergency care for those going through the particularly intense parts of a renewal process. For quite a few of our members who have only ever known a purely medical model, it is all that we can do to hold each other through the difficult task of switching from an illness perspective to a wellness model. This calls for the forming of relationships with those in the caring professions who are prepared to help us form a bridge to wellness. We also have some members who have never sought medical attention and therefore have not had a diagnosis or been labelled with a mental illness. They have, with hindsight, been able to view their overwhelming experiences as transformative and life enhancing.

Empowerment is a buzz word everywhere these days. For renewal it is crucial. Transformation is an inside job and in Renew we respect everyone’s right to make choices about where they are going in their life. In extreme emergencies, whether of physical or psychological trauma, the sufferer may need to be made safe without full conscious consent…at the scene of an accident the victim has spinal supports put in place without debate. The overwhelmed person who is a real danger to themselves or others will also need to be made safe. (I realise that the definition of “real danger” can be abused. This is certainly an issue for very serious discussion.) Outside of these temporary emergency situations, we understand that everyone has access to an inner healing mechanism. The life experiences that have led to our distress may have damaged our sense of ourselves, but they do not damage our core selves. At the level of heart and soul we are all we will ever need to be. From this perspective we see that there is a task at hand for us if we chose to take it up. (As opposed to the fatalism of seeing ourselves with a vaguely defined illness which may or may not ever clear up.) That task is to work to strengthen those parts of ourselves that most want transformation and can engage in the process. We also know that for each of us, that there are parts of us that are capable of functioning happily: maybe our work, certain relationships, our interests or hobbies, our engagement with nature, etc. None of us need struggle in all departments of our lives. We can raise our general energy levels by investing in the functioning parts of our “community of selves”. In Renew, we see each other as multi-facetted human beings who are having a really hard time but who can find their own path to renewal.

How does one find one’s own transformational path? There are some markers on the road, but it’s often too dark to make them out. So we make some wrong turns and thus learn where the wrong turns are. We meet fellow travellers on the road, who can tell us what they found on their journeys. They have no maps for our territory, but they can tell us their stories and point us in the direction that they have travelled. We can read and go to classes or groups or meetings. We can try various therapies. Alone or in groups we can meditate, exercise or do yoga. We can begin to gain confidence through regular and fulfilling activities that add structure to our lives. It’s a trial and error process. We need to find the things that will resonate with our own process or else it will be difficult to sustain it. So how then do we sustain the trial and error process, especially if progress is patchy or slow? In Renew we are offer each other compassionate witness and loving friendship. This is our most powerful resource. When the going gets really tough, and we feel like chucking in the towel, witness and friendship can sustain us till we turn the corner. We encourage each other to keep exploring for answers, but we also cultivate acceptance for where we are at this moment.

Advocating a trial and error approach may seem irresponsible, but we see it as liberating. Our honest and deep sharing circles foster a sense that we can be ourselves, warts and all. If we have people who we can be comfortable with, we can reflect on our progress and make adjustments based on our own experience. Such a person may be a therapist . If the person is a fellow sufferer, there is a special bond of empathy. When we share our triumphs and failures with a group of people, we open out into the world and are well on our way to integrating our experiences. Each type of sharing will add a different dimension to our unfolding new relationship with ourselves and the world around us.

Another key aspect of the renewal process is that we attach value to the experiences of non-ordinary consciousness that we experience. These can be dreams, hallucinations, voices, low and high emotional states, unusual beliefs, etc. Because we see that these are not just random phenomena resulting from neurological malfunctions, we understand that they possess great potential for insight and healing. For some members, some of these states of mind are transient and wither with healing. For others, the reframing of their view of themselves means that they accept these phenomena as part of who they are, not a part to be worked against. Thomas Moore writes beautifully in “The Care of the Soul” about the rhythm and value of depression. The title of John Breeding’s book “The Necessity of Madness” says a lot. All of John Weir Perry’s work is eloquent on the richness of healing in the ritual dramas of visionary overwhelms. None of this negates the intense suffering and dysfunction that can arise as these processes work their way through. Our members know about this only too well. But as we emerge from the more tumultuous parts, many of us start to see the work the psyche is doing to heal itself, to re-organise itself for a higher level of functioning, inevitably one of greater insight, relatedness and love. We understand that it is critical to support this process with compassion and self-exploration. We endeavour together to highlight things that may impede our healing. Lack of structure in our lives, the impairment of consciousness through heavy and regular use of alcohol and drugs of all types, addictions of any sort, and isolation all impede our progress. We encourage things that improve our levels of consciousness and wellbeing such as exercise, meditative practices, creative expression, time in nature and healthy diet.

Renew is a fledgling group of people, with a lot to learn. We are trying to learn from our experiences and we are delighted to be here in Cork with so many others who are dedicated to finding a better way to promote healing in our society. We have started as a working group, and have no formal links with the health professions. A few professionals support our overall approach of providing compassionate mutual support for wellness and renewal, and have referred people in distress to us. As we grow, so too will our the number of our members who have come through difficult experiences and can provide further compassionate witness and a fresh context to others. We welcome as members all who subscribe to our values, as embodied in our value statement. We welcome also dialogue with those in the healthcare, educational and social support communities, who feel there are grounds to make common cause in the alleviation of distress.

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