Nam started life in the UK and was sent at six to live with his relatives in Sierra Leone. He describes this a very traumatic time. It was during the civil war, and he was exposed to stresses that he felt led to his symptoms. On return from Africa, he was in the British military and then the fire service, both of which, he reports with their male dominated environments, became his day to day experience of the world. Environments that to him lacked sensitivity.
Prior to finding his solution within Psychotherapy, Nam describes using boxing and gambling as tools to help him manage his overwhelming emotions. Useful in the short term, but wasn’t enough for him, as he inevitably felt the sensations welling up soon after he finished.
Fortuitously, one day at work in the fire service a course came up that he completed on listening skills. From that day, he recognised he had a natural empathy with others and took it as an opportunity to retrain as a Psychotherapist. It during his therapeutic training he worked out that the skills he was learning not only applied to those he wanted to help, but to helping him resolve himself. By using his self reflective skills, and working with his own therapist (both a requirement and a strongly advised continuation as a therapist) he started to notice a difference in his own life and how his emotions started to no longer control his daily experiences.
He notes that his friends and family after a few years started to see a change in him, that he was calmer, happier and wasn’t so exaggerated with his emotional responses. He knew he’d found a way to tap into his emotions and let them go without overwhelming him as they had done in the past. This makes complete sense as this study found a maintenance of a healthy brain and nervous system in the pyschosocial environment improves not the body’s intrinsic biological pathways, but also, indirectly by enabling the person to engage in supportive relationships, make wise decisions and take good care of themseleves (McEwen, 2012)
Nam continues to work on his own mental health with regular therapy, self reflection and meditation, and finds his day to day expression of anxiety and anger nothing compared to what he was experiencing before starting his healing journey. He has such a passion to help others find the same relief and healing that he has.
Nam taught me two helpful techniques. Firstly, the four second rule. If someone says something to you, or asks something of you that causes an upwelling of emotion. It is a very good idea to take a few moments to compile your thoughts. It is also perfectly reasonably to say ‘I’ll get back to you on that one’ if it is a tricky request he is trying to navigate. He learnt that someone else’s comfort shouldn’t come at a detriment to his own.
Secondly, breath is his highway to his emotional experience. If a external stimuli brings about a reaction within him, he has learnt to go to his breath first. To notice first how it has affected him and then help the sensation pass without feeling the need to react to it.
Nam’s use of self reflective practice through therapy and his personal emotional awareness work is an excellent tandem approach that has worked so well.
His journey to recovery was not without hardships, Nam notes that coming from a black African background, he did not come from a place that sharing your feelings or expressing your internal world was encouraged, let alone addressed at all. He knew so clearly the way he managed to overcome this barrier of culture was that he wasn’t afraid to try something new. He was happy to learn a new perspective on ways to live and has benefited tremendously from doing things differently than how he learnt growing up.
Another clear barrier that he expresses so well is also the cost of undertaking mental health treatment. It’s not something that everyone can afford and it’s something that so most people will benefit from.
Nam taught me so much about giving interviews in our session and pointed out a few key things that I am hypothesising to see more of in the future in people who have recovered from long term conditions and pain. To borrow an idea from Dr Sarno (The Mindbody Prescription, Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, 1999), he quotes certain types of TMS (Tension Myoneural Syndrome) personalities. These are describes as the personality types of the people most likely to experience long term pain and chronic conditions. Personality styles, being the things we develop during our early years from 0-25. I want to question whether there are personality types that best support different types of treatment, along with cultural, language, condition, and preference. And are their personalities that do better with recovery than others? And what does that mean for a reader who recognises themselves in one person and not the other?
Nam to me embodied these Personality Key Elements:
· Happy to be seen as ‘different’ from his cultural and his gender
· Comfortable to try new things and to see things a different way
· Not chasing external happiness i.e. money, cars, property
I will be very curious as time goes on to see these, ‘Healing Elements’, we spot in other case studies.
It seems somewhat obvious to me, that a one size fits all approach will never be to solution to everybodys long term conditions, but to see if there is any correlation in people, underneath a successful treatment might be how we find the most holistic treatment for the right person.
Barriers, mistakes and lessons
· Nam pointed out a really good issue that Rick and I are still working out the best way to overcome when interviewing other people. As two obviously white middle class people, we have to be aware that who we are, how we speak and the unconscious (or conscious) cultural bias’ people have towards us will affect how they answer questions. An ongoing question we are discussing trying to mitigate. Any advice would be welcomed.
· Leading questions! I have to be kind to myself as a novice interviewer, I am still getting into the swing of what is and isn’t a good question. I became very aware after a few questions that I had phrased them in an obviously leading way. I realise how it affects the integrity of the answer therefore, the answer to a leading question “Did you feel your therapy improvements affected your relationships” was removed.
· Technical issues. We had a 20 minute pause in the middle of the interview when we had a memory card storage issue which took us longer than we liked to resolve. An important lesson in making sure the settings are right and that we have another few spare for extra in depth answers! We actually found the pause to be helpful as an emotional break and found the conversation flowed much more smoothly afterwards. Considering the addition of a short break as standard.
Nam’s key features within his healing approach, which may be relevant in a wider perspective of other successful approaches to pain resolution. I think that Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score, 2014) might agree:
· A safe space
· A kind guide that doesn’t make you feel disempowered
· A mindset of self-lead work. That the guide is there to help you rather than do the work for you.
· A mindset of continual growth that this work is ongoing and affecting of all aspects of your life.