How We Use Psychodrama in Resolving the Past
A blog by Tian Dayton PhD TEP
(partially excerpted from The Soulful Journey of Recovery Nov. 2019)
One of the problematic issues for adult children is that some if not much of their mourning dates from a time and place in their childhood. Many of them feel too old to let themselves exhibit the kind of grief they actually feel. Some have parents who are now sober with whom they have vastly improved relationships. They don’t want to jeopardize their relationship today by releasing their pain, but it still needs to be felt and processed because they still carry it and perhaps live it out. So an adult child might find themselves in a bind. While finally getting what they always wanted, a sober parent and a comfortable relationship with them, the child inside may still be in pain; they may still need to cry and get angry. The ACoA loves their now-sober parent, and their now-sober parent likely wants to forget about all of those terrible years, at least the half they don’t remember anyway. They want to make their amends and have it over with. But for the ACoA, it is far from over, and now they are faced with the complicated task of loving their sober parent while still needing to confront the parent they grew up with. They need to grieve that parent, to get angry at that parent, to call that parent onto the carpet, and tell them how much they have been hurt by them. But they’re afraid to because they got what they always wanted, which is a sober parent. And they, too, want to forget; they don’t want to rock the boat. However, out of sight is not out of mind. The average ACoA will need to grieve these losses to get over them. It becomes important for these adult children to actually speak from the role of their inner child to the parent they had then. Role play makes this very efficient, clear and healing.
One of the things I try to teach clients how to do is to allow the child or wounded part within them to talk to their “inner adult” before blurting out all of their feelings to the world and then being disappointed that the world doesn’t hear, care, or listen. It is our job to hear ourselves as adults, to be our own good parent, to listen to all that the various parts of ourselves are trying to say to us. Then, to help find the right words for the right feeling so that we have a chance to communicate our feelings with some level of awareness, compassion and emotional intelligence. When we can do this, we have a pretty good shot at being understood. And when we can listen as someone else attempts to do the same with us, we have the basis for intimacy and success in relationships, whether with friends, or in the workplace. Naturally, we’ll have our angry outbursts, our tears, frustrations, and momentary wobbles, but they need to be temporary; we need to find our way back to forgiveness, understanding, and communication.
It is such a shame that we avoid grief because, truthfully, it’s the fastest way through what blocks our joy. And when I say fast, I mean it; if you really let yourself feel pain, you will cry, get angry, feel tossed around, dis-equilibrated a bit and also freed up, relieved, and even exhilarated. And all of this can happen in twenty minutes. It comes in waves. Don’t resist it, don’t get stuck in it, and you’ll see great results.
HIDDEN AND DISENFRANCHISED LOSSES
Some losses like death are clear. Society recognizes them as significant and we have rituals to mourn them. We feel free to ask for support and more often, support comes our way without our even having to ask. But the kinds of losses that surround relational trauma and addiction are not necessarily acknowledged and they do not necessarily get grieved. Because of this they often remain what is referred to as “disenfranchised.” Disenfranchised losses can lack visibility and clarity. They are split out of consciousness and oftentimes remain unseen or misread by others and even by ourselves. There can even be confusion as to exactly who or what has been lost or whether there is a loss at all. However, not only do these losses exist, the very fact that they remain buried and unrecognized can create blocks in our process of grieving and recovery. These sorts of losses need our compassion and care. Grieving these kinds of losses can bring about change on the inside, that leads to change on the outside.
Some examples of disenfranchised losses are:
- Loss of a connection to self, due to trauma
- The grief of the inner child who lives inside of the adult
- For the addict, the loss of potential or a part of their life
- For the ACoA, the loss of a sober parent or a period of unencumbered childhood
- For the ACoA, the loss of a functional family
- For the spouse of an addict, the loss of a trusted and dependable partner
- Divorce abandonment/visitation changes related to divorce
- Socially stigmatized deaths (AIDS, suicide, murder, DUI, overdose, death)
- Adoption either being adopted or placing a child up for adoption, adoptive parents whose child seeks a biological family
- Death of a pet
- Miscarriage, infertility
- Disabling conditions, health issues
- Moving to a new home, job loss, retirement
- Mental illness or cognitive deficit
Concretizing and processing these losses can be what allows us to move on and grow, to free ourselves of haunting shadows. When we deal with a loss, it can trigger recollections or bring up other losses; this is part of what complicates mourning.
I use experiential forms of therapy to concretize, understand, and mourn these kinds of losses and to allow other losses that get “remembered” to emerge and be seen and worked through, too. Through psychodrama, the actual loss we’re dealing with can be concretized by putting it into a role or several roles. A part of the self, a time of life, a person, or even a substance can be represented by an empty chair. We can talk to it and reverse roles and talk as it; we can have a spontaneous and honest interchange that connects us to our feelings or parts of ourselves we feel out of touch with. Journaling or letter writing are also a good ways to process feelings of sadness and anger and loss; just pour them out onto the page and let them flow. Mourning a loss of a connection to self or to someone significant, to the sober parent, to a period of life, to family addiction and/or dysfunction is as crucial as mourning a loss to death. Processing these losses experientially provides an alternative form of ritual for the kinds of losses that all too often go unrecognized and unacknowledged. People often feel alone in grieving this kind of loss, but being with a small group of individuals as you are at Mending Heartwounds, who are also looking at and dealing with them, can give a sense of permission and freedom in facing them. And concretizing can give them a sense of being real.
Getting Loose of Trauma Bonds: Separating Past from Present
We move through the world in the present, but carrying the past. In order to relieve ourselves of a weight of unfelt, unprocessed emotion, our inner world needs to somehow be made manifest. It needs to come out, and psychodrama makes that very easy because it allows for the full and, if desired, cathartic expression of whatever emotions are in there. It lets us express our sadness or anger to the actual person toward whom we feel it through role players. It can be so unsatisfying, to say nothing of detrimental, to express historical pain that is tied to our drunk mother when we were thirteen, or even now, today, as a forty-year-old to that same mother who may be sober. They may have forgotten about what we’re talking about or may not want to hear it. But role play allows those historical periods of our lives to come alive for a moment, and we can go full throttle into them. The satisfaction, the release, and the freedom can be profound. Because we’re re-inhabiting that thirteen-year-old and letting her or him speak to the right person at the right time through surrogates. The thirteen-year old can talk, through using role players, to the parent they had then, the one that hurt them. We can leave the relationship with the mother we have today out of it and address historical issues on the therapeutic stage. It’s so much truer and curiously feels more real and is certainly creates less wear and tear on the relationship today that may be working well. Resolving past pain doesn’t mean that we no longer remember what happened, it’s that in making it conscious it changes in the way that it sits inside of us.
This is the work of recovery.
Dr Tian Dayton
Senior Fellow at Meadows Behavioral Health & Director at The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.
Dr. Tian Dayton is a senior fellow at The Meadows and Director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute, author of fifteen books including, Neuropsychodrama in the...