We asked Christophe Sauerwein, our Academic Director, to write a blog introducing himself, allowing us to peer beneath the mask of labels and job titles. Christophe is more than just our Academic Director and more than a psychotherapist running his own private practice. In this incredibly comprehensive and human piece we are permitted an inside view of Christophe’s life and mind. We feel exceptionally privileged to publish it.
Later this week Christophe will be publishing a blog exclusively for iCAAD which explores Love Addiction. He will also be introducing Dr Philippe Wuyts's presentation at the CCSAD Conference on Sunday 16th September 2018 at 8:30am, where Dr Wuyts will be presenting "The Human Fire Extinguished – The Rise of Burnout”. A presentation which will look into the reasons for the current increase in Burnout Syndrome prevalence on a global level.
Over to Christophe…
“I think it was end of last April. As usual, I had a gap between two patients in my comfortable and safe consulting room, I call it my Local Universe. It’s boarded with book shelves packed with books of psychology, philosophy, therapeutic models which matter to me, the old XIXth century clerk-desk inherited from a great-grand-father, the famous inevitable twin comfy armchairs, and a handful of Buddhist artefacts for a true spiritual touch.
I usually read in those moments. It brings me solace, resilience, and opportunity to dig a bit deeper into all sorts of human questions. I had just finished the disquieting reading of “Freud’s most distinguished pupil”, Wilhelm Stekel’s paraphilic case studies. My eyes were wandering, searching for something gentler. I saw the cover of Irvin Yalom’s Memoirs, “Becoming Myself” which I had recently brought back from his conference in LA at “Evolution of Psychotherapy”. Why not? said my inner-voice.
So there I was, lounged on my armchair, dipping into the pages one after the other. After a while – actually a few days – I started to experience a new, unexpectedly pleasant sensation: the more I read of Yalom’s life, the more I started to experience memories, MY memories, bubbling up to the surface of my consciousness. It was very different from those directed efforts I had done during my many years in therapy. It was sloppy, vivid, meaningful and perhaps even nurturing I thought as I paused, trying to make sense of this surge of images and their associated thoughts and feelings. An experience of phenomenology of perception, my scholarly self whispered, sincerely attempting to shield me against an attack of any form of serious feelings!
I breathed into my thought process, welcomed a full rainbow of emotions, vastly contrasted but converging into some joy: I was here, now, made of my history and my perceptual memories (very different), my psyche (functioning and damaged simultaneously), present to the world and my fellows reaching out to me through the medium of word – no, this is an opinionated euphemism – intimately congruent (better accounting word) within this possibility of myself (amongst other potential ones). I have achieved over 55 years of life, sometimes stormy, sometimes sunny, but always eventually pointing upwards and upwards even through the darkest moments of desperation and self-destruction.
Why now? Why was I experiencing this elation through reading Yalom’s Memoirs? I remembered Yalom’s basic definition of therapy: the experience of two human beings in a room… surely there was something like this happening to me at this moment, with the exception of one fact, the other person was with me through a book, a language, a narrative. Was it because of my admiration for Yalom’s work, was it his carefully chosen style and narrative? I could not tell. Surely, there were very few points of identification between his life in Washington DC in the 30’s and 40’s and mine in Paris in the 60’s and 70’s? Nevertheless it felt really good. The positive emotions were powerful enough to allow me to tract out (not distract or attract) from myself the raw material of the making of myself, from the deeper layers of my life-span. It was hugely comforting and healing (therapeutic I suppose in technical words). I realised then that, in my opinion, this shared process of story telling was the pillar of my aim as a psychotherapist. Not an end game, just a pillar on the journey, this “goal” - a somewhat modern utilitarian concept - still remains doubtful to me, for it is in the hands of my patient to capture it eventually.
My understanding of “the story telling” as an element of the therapeutic encounter and journey does not consist of just the therapist telling his story fully. Instead he uses some well-timed, well-chosen slices of his intimate experience of life as a small anchor to help the patient to tract out from himself historical clues, which need to surface in his search for meaning.
It is an attempt to create in the room, in the instant, this “something more” than the therapeutic model allows – always a somewhat rigid formal technical frame, no matter which useful therapeutic method deployed. A moment to experience the “sloppiness, the indeterminate, untidy, or approximate qualities of the exchange of meaning” (Boston Change Process Study Group, 2002) between the patient and myself. A sort of local-level experience in parallel with the meta-level one set forth as The Therapy.
Strolling within my thoughts, my memories and the meaning of my life today seemed very congruent, joyful, peaceful and meaningful at the same time.
I felt, and thought, it was important at that moment to look back, pause and reflect on what made me become myself.
For the last 10 years I have spent most of my active life learning, researching, sometimes discovering things and most importantly helping human minds and beings to make sense of themselves; their peculiar individual singularities, struggling and enjoying being part of the human race.
For personal reasons my entry gate to this realm was what we, somewhat simplistically, call and conceptualise as addiction. Looking back at my life from my vantage point today, it is clear, as it often is with hindsight: Me, gulping condensed milk tubes at 5 years old to fight my fears, finding great solace in alcohol and “permanent masturbation – fantasy” in my tweens and teens, fighting what I did not know to be depression, my permanent shy-obsession of girls and eventually this attempt to build a successful life in private equity with the help of a couple of grams of coke a day. Looking back, the affluent so-called family support was absolutely useless, and contributed only an unbearable pressure, with the central goal in life being to intellectually over-achieve.
All of this built up over two decades until I reached my mid thirties when I could not pretend to myself any longer that this life was just my karma. I then embarked on a journey of recovery or ‘life-cure’, which lead me to several detoxes, an honest dip in AA, 5 rehabs all over Europe, including a residential stay for over 14 months. From a standard outcome measurement perspective, none of them really worked long lastingly, but from a personal growth and journey perspective, they did work: I always learned something more about myself, I probably needed this 8-year long trial-by-error process to discover an intimate purpose in my life as an alternative to self-destructive coping strategies, viciously combined with high social and professional achievement.
Eventually, in my two last residential stays in treatment centres, in the north of London and in Arizona, four things became apparent to me:
- Addiction was not for me about what I was addicted to, and it was definitely not only the substances: it was a complex interactive system, a resourceful way, dare I say it, to cope with myself and the world. I had built up this system to survive, it was much more profound for me than a behavioural problem as suggested to me by so many therapists with poor outcomes. Thus, I started, intuitively, to look at the system rather than at the object of my addiction. I became convinced that if I could crack the intertwined relations, somewhere between them I could find my way out. It was then, for me, that a deep shift became possible and it was this that still informs, what I call today, my addictive-conduit in a life nurtured with abstinence, bottom lines and conscious care of my complex addictive system and personality.
- Most of my addictive response to life was a self-medicated attempt to dissolve my extreme reactions and emotional responses to things.
- The point of origin of all this multi-dimensional system was to be found in my family of origin’s “traits” of dysfunction, immaturity and also their levels of hyper-functionality. This combined induced what I would suggest were too high intellectual standards combined with very low emotional intelligence and a very confusing affluent neglect as The Framework. Such an upbringing gave me the greatest opportunity to understand the outer world but little chance to, internally, make sense of myself. Our American friends tend to call it Relational Trauma; I would rather use the Adverse Childhood Experience terminology as a whole, which included also rather traumatic episodes.
- The pinnacle of my pain over the past decades was surely expressed in so many failed attempts to build relationships – romantic as well as friendships, having led - or actually un-led - to seven failed trials built up as illusionary houses of cards.
It became very apparent to me that if I could shift this high-wired dubious homeostasis into a much more self-centred and purpose-driven one, I could eventually come to accept myself. Therapy started to make sense and, together with several 12-step fellowships, the journey could start.
After a while, came the question of “what to do with myself?” My therapist pointed me in the direction of a Masters in Addiction Psychology at London Southbank University followed by specific training in cognitive therapies, PIT trauma reduction therapies, sexual compulsivity and attachment disorders and an internship at the Priory North London Hospital, where eventually I became a permanent therapist, contributing to the development of trauma reduction programmes and sexual and attachment disorder treatment models.
My years of training and learning brought me across the routes of Khantzian, Carnes, Mellody, Yalom, Frankl, Seligman, van der Kolk, Levine, Black , Bowlby, Shaver, Landau and so many more which helped me to confirm and elaborate on my personal intuition stemming from my life experience.
I keep the fondest memories of my Priory years, how much I learned, how much I enjoyed working in this multi-disciplinary team, deploying true help to our patients. They were true formative years in developing myself as a therapist. However, after various years and further reading and research, reflection and hypothesis testing, I became convinced of the limitation of the “rehab concept” - although an extremely useful and often necessary condition for one to engage with recovery, I didn’t believe it to be sufficient. It was only a matter of time before my clinician appetite and my gusto for higher intellectual and creative thinking were asking for more.
I left The Priory with a mixture of sadness and hope. Setting off to explore the absolute freedom of developing a true private practice, where I could eventually integrate philosophy and spirituality into psychology, quantum physics into sexual compulsivity, systemic models into addiction, gravitational laws into attachment disorders. It may seem slightly strange to be summarised so bluntly, but I realised all that I had learnt at university over the last 25 years – mathematics, philosophy, theology, corporate systems and strategy, as well as sociology, could synergistically contribute to help my clients in a meaningful way which was congruent with my beliefs and knowledge and could also meet their needs. I could then grow further from our old Minnesota and Arizona models without denying them, a process Hegel named “Aufhebung” (defined as "abolish", "preserve", and "transcend" together, the “sublate” expression of a dialectical process).
Today, after 5 years of such an gifted opportunity life gave me, I have the privilege to work with clients coming to me to seek meaning and existential answers to their lives, most often on the back of a solid number years of substance addiction abuse and recovery. Deeper than behavioural changes and utilitarian shifts, they come across mysterious unanswered questions surging from early life or coming from their possible future: from “what happened and why?” to “what can I build up for myself now?”
At some point during our encounter I usually propose three axis of reflexion as a framework to deal with their presenting concerns and quests:
- “Sooner or later it will be time to give up hope for a better past” (Yalom)
- “Build up for yourself a fate than you can love” (Nietzsche)
- What is it that you now need to learn for yourself that you could not from your family of origin?
I have found that, more often than not, my clients are hugely responsive to this proposal and much more engaged with whichever therapeutic tool we then decide to use together. This meta-level of self-awakening may well animate the local-level efficiency of therapeutic tools and models helping a process of change: in other words the Viktor Frankl hypothesis: when there is an answer to the “Why”, then the “How” is no longer, or perhaps more reasonably the “How” is less, of a problem.
Another important notion I like to work on with my clients is the concept of change. How is it working? How do we, as human beings engage in this process, something that seems like it should be so simple, but is actually so problematic. I tend to break it down into something more than just a behavioural shift, and present it through three axis (not phases, since they do not follow each other but interact in a complex relationship):
- Willingness (has to do with meta-cognition, the way we think about ourselves)
- Readiness (has to do with emotional regulation and fear of homeostasis loss)
- Ability (here comes the behavioural bit – all to do with “homo abilis” skills)
Until these three axis reach an acceptable level, the likelihood of a solid shift remains low, and sometimes strengthening them up will require trial-by-error processing, what we call relapses (not only as in addiction, but as in attempt to grow) in a negative conceptualisation, learning in a positive one. No child learned to walk without the necessary and sufficient condition to try-fall-and-learn-towards-acquisition/integration. In my view it goes in a very similar way when it comes to learning to become myself.
This is what I am passionate about exploring whilst walking alongside my clients on their journey of “becoming”.”
Written by Christophe Sauerwiein, Patmos, August 2018