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Walking Between Two Worlds: Helping People Using My Lived Experience

Written by River Valade

Tawnshi, River Dishinikawshon. Niya Red River Metis, Black (African Diaspora) & Ukrainian.

Niya Oshkaabewis. Haudensaunee & Mississaugas of the Credit Nation territory niwiken.

English Translation:

Hi, my name is River. I am Red River Métis, Black & Ukrainian. I am a Helper (Social Worker/Counsellor). I live on the territory of the Haudensaunee (Six Nations of the Grand River) & Mississaugas of the Credit Nation.

Being someone who is Mixed-Race, Queer, Non-Binary and Disabled, I have had experiences as a client with therapists who had no idea what my life was like and/or is currently like. This was a significant barrier for me in getting the support I actually needed.

I felt like there were no therapists out there who were like me at all or who could understand personally what it is like / was like to go through similar experiences to mine. It felt alienating and isolating for a long time.

I needed a therapist or counsellor who could say to me that they genuinely know what I am going through or what I went through, because they have been through something similar themselves. These feelings and past experiences of mine played a large role in what led me to become a counsellor myself.

In my practice as a therapist, I wanted to be more open about the fact that I have lived experience and that I am not a perfect human being simply because of what I do for a living.

The typical idea that probably comes to mind when most people think of a therapist is likely this:

You know – Ones who just sit there and go “Uh-huh”; say things like “And how does that make you feel?”; and who share nothing about themselves but expect you to disclose the details of your most traumatic experiences in the first session?

No disrespect to therapists/counsellors who choose to practice using a similar approach to what I described – defining professional boundaries is complicated. It’s just not the way that I wanted to do my work, mainly because of most of the experiences I had navigating therapy as a client.

In learning about the perspectives, ethics and values behind Indigenous approaches to helping/therapy – these helped to inform not only the ways in which I practice as a therapist with lived experience. While also validating the fact that retaining my humanity is important in walking alongside others in their mental health journeys.

Michael Anthony Hart (2009), a Cree Social Work Scholar, writes about the importance of the relationship between a therapist and a client in Indigenous approaches to therapy:

“Helping processes are focused on the relationships of the people being helped, including the relationship between the people seeking help and those offering help. The people offering help are not the experts. Instead, there is a focus on speaking from the heart, which suggests speaking with personal emotional experience, intuition, and honesty. Finally, the helping process is a shared experience, thus the experience of the helping process is relevant to both the life of the person seeking help as well as the person offering help.”

In practicing therapy informed by Indigenous approaches to helping, strengthening the relationship between myself and the person I am supporting requires me sharing parts of my life and my story with them as well. Otherwise, I would be reinforcing harmful power dynamics that would be detrimental to our helping relationship.

(Artist – Leah Dorion)

Cindy Baskin (2016), a Mi’kmaq-Celtic Social Work Scholar and Professor of Social Work at Toronto Metropolitan University, discusses the implications of reinforcing these power dynamics:

“It has always struck me as odd, especially from an anti-oppressive perspective which has a strong focus on issues of power, that practitioners expect service users to reveal incredibly personal information about themselves usually right from the initial contact. These encounters occur without the helpers revealing anything about themselves other than a name, job description and credentials.

Without any relationship-building, service users are expected to share their stories of, for example, childhood sexual abuse, pain or reasons for drug misuse. Service users are supposed to trust such intimacies to this stranger sitting across the room, asking questions, filling out forms – someone who most likely has no idea what it is like to feel so utterly desperate that they must go through this humiliating experience in order to receive help.

(…) How many of us would feel comfortable walking into a stranger’s office and disclosing that we are being physically abused by a partner or that we do not have enough food to feed our children today?”

I know exactly what it’s like to have an experience such as what she described, because I have lived it as a service user/client. Such lived experience is why I practice as a helper or therapist differently than what many are taught to do.

(Artist – @Chief Lady Bird)

Baskin further elaborates in the same chapter, to what Hart spoke to about the importance of relationship in Indigenous approaches to helping. I share this as it’s relevant to not only how I practice as a counsellor, but to the shared values we hold here at Stardust:

“In my work as a social work practitioner, educator and researcher, I share information about myself with service users, students, and participants. I invite them to ask questions about me, adding if they ask something I do not want to share, I will tell them, ‘That’s none of your business!’ People appreciate the humor!

Relationship-building is one aspect of Indigenous approaches to helping that can be applied to all helping professions, taking into consideration the safety and comfort level of the worker and the policies of the agency. It is important to ‘walk your talk’ should you strive to truly be an anti-oppressive social worker who is open to many ways of seeing the world and helping.”

When I share coping techniques with my own clients, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m still very much practicing them for myself too! Some of what I share with them comes from my own therapist, and I mention that in my sessions.

I’m open about the fact that I’ve gone through therapy myself and that I still see a therapist regularly – because this shows that I am indeed not the expert and that I’m human too. I am still on my own journey to healing from my trauma and learning how to best walk alongside someone on theirs - but I can still share insights from my own experiences if they are like their own.

Indigenous approaches to helping remind me that often, without a strong relationship that is built on mutual respect and trust between a therapist and the person they are supporting, all the knowledge of therapy techniques in the world won’t do all that much help for someone.

Our humanity – our connection to one another on a human to human level, and empathy, are just as valuable in the therapeutic relationship as having knowledge and skills on therapy techniques.

“We are in Deep Relation.” – My Elder, Banakonda Kennedy-Kish Bell (Anishinaabe)

(Artist – Christi Belcourt)

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