Many Hands Clapping

The applause was hearty and sustained. It nearly died but somewhere in the room the volume was raised and others joined in. No, it wasn’t a concert, nor was it for an entertainer or popular celebrity. A middle-aged indigenous man stood with his head bowed – seemingly overwhelmed at what was happening and the fact that it was happening at all. It nearly didn’t. For some months before in a wave of deep despair he drove his speeding commodore into a concrete pole. Six airbags prevented another suicide statistic.
If the despair before the attempt was bad enough, the depression after was worse. The addition of ‘failed attempt’ brought another layer of shame that seemed beyond help. He was ‘seen to’, counselled and monitored, but the trauma persisted and the black cloud of depression remained.
“Do you still do therapy?” I was asked. A close friend of his sister was impressed with the training materials I had provided. Her trainees were front line health workers from remote communities in Arnhem Land. The trainer had been on a search for new approaches to old problems in emotional health. “There has to be something better because we are hardly making a difference” she said. She found what she was looking for in the UK, then chanced upon my name as the first Australian qualified in the approach. I was happy to use my time in lock-down during Covid to make videos and resources she could use. However, therapy by telephone was another thing altogether for me. I hesitated, and relied on that good old standby response: “It depends”. She wanted to give her friend my name, for her brother was in a very dark place. It still depended, for people can get out of dark places without me. “He works with aboriginal women to get their kids back and aboriginal men in rehab and prisons. He is the best healer we have and we can’t afford to lose him”. I didn’t hesitate after that, and when his sister contacted me I told her I would be happy to talk to him.
Some time later he reached out and talk we did. For hours, time only a retiree could spend. It didn’t take long to feel like kindred spirits. I discovered we were both mavericks bucking a system in a passionate defence of the marginalized, and sadly, earning more condemnation than applause. I discovered something else. The trauma was not linked to the horrific crash, but the deep shame coming from his being sacked in front of his colleagues in a job he loved. The very public humiliation would upset anyone of us, but the sense of shame felt by this indigenous man pushed him into a dark place that got even darker.
My therapeutic approach is very client-centred – short on analysis and long on finding out how they see themselves. Knowing their ‘essence’ or their deepest sense of identity is important, sometimes they know it, sometimes we discover it together. “What is your totem?” I asked. “I am a Torres Strait Islander and my totem is the diamond stingray.” He also said he doesn’t think about it much, not that unusual for those living in urban areas like Canberra.
During my years of private practice, the removal of the effects of trauma has been more successful than any other therapeutic intervention. There is good reason that the technique was mandated by the UN for use by villagers in post-genocide Rwanda, it is simple, fast and effective. And so it was in this case. While not necessarily part of the process, I always ‘value add’ while they are still deeply relaxed. I take the opportunity to add helpful metaphors to consolidate change for we are dealing with the emotional brain which is pre-language and pre-thought. Coming from our recent understanding of why humans dream, is a fresh appreciation of stories, especially ones with the client’s own metaphors.
A long-held mantra of mine is ‘success breeds success, but also spite, jealousy and envy’. So I could relate to his work history of being the best healer in a system using every foul means in their power to pull down the high flyers. So I used the stingray with its shiny surface as being impossible to hold back. It owns the ocean, has few predators and moves with such elegance over the Thursday Island shoreline.
It didn’t take long to see that it had worked. When we next spoke, with a new found excitement, he told me he had had an epiphany. “I have been fighting against the system, I now need to work smarter. Waiting for the tide to change is better than struggling against the it” he told me. I was concerned, for the tide to me represented business as usual, and that it was not for turning. I needed to be sure he would still go into bat for mothers wanting their children back, the prisoners and addicts needing hope. I needn’t have worried.
His passion for advocacy and healing was revitalized. He couldn’t wait to get employed again so he volunteered where the need was greatest. His presentation slide said it all; titled ‘understanding the oceans, tides and currents’, it said of the stingray: ‘it looked like it owned the sea, and knew where it was going … sometimes staying still, always in control, and hassled by nothing.’ More epiphanies followed leading him to use stories and metaphor to amazing benefit for incarcerated indigenous suicide survivors. The presentation slides didn’t show us the prisoners or the insides of their prison, but we could see the insides of a process that worked to restore dignity and hope again.
It nearly didn’t happen. When a ‘call for papers’ for a national First Nations Suicide conference came out I encouraged him to present. I countered his ‘that’s not my thing’ with ‘if you’re not qualified to speak about indigenous suicide who the hell is?’. It worked. His presentation entitled ’Six commodore airbags – a suicide survivor’s story’ had listeners spell-bound. Many teared up, especially when he asked his therapist to join him onstage where two cultures embraced. Perhaps no wonder the applause was sustained.

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Merv was a teacher, trainer and therapist using the Human Givens approach to emotional health. He is the first Australian qualified in this revolutionary treatment method, and since retiring from private practice, spreads his time between running an online course in psychotherapy and sailing his yacht.

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