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July 16, 2014

Power Transformed


Chernobyl_Nuclear_Power_Plant SM

Chernobyl power plant today

One of humanities greatest troubles and mysteries is power: who has it, who does not? One of the biggest difficulties I see in therapy is if you have it how do you use it? It is unusual for someone to identify with being powerful without the fear of abusing that power. This fear is problematic. It creates a denial of power that banishes it. It makes power inaccessible when needed. Most people have power. Think of someone you know who says they are weak but has the power to make you change your plans, even your life, without asking directly for what they want.

Power can show up in your relationships through conflicts, either implicit conflicts or explicit ones. It can show up in blocks and impedances to hoped-for outcomes in life. While working with physical symptoms I have seen a lot of power emerge. While this sounds unlikely read on and see how Andri transformed the power of his symptom into vitality and hope in life.

The Chernobyl Project

Andrei clutched a well-worn white plastic bag containing his valuables. He wore a coat that was too large and had the shuffling walk of an old man. He seemed to be somewhere between 60 and 70 years old. Looking sad and collapsed, he stood near us as we took our tea break. He was one of the volunteer clients with whom we worked in the morning of the first day of a training weekend for psychotherapists interested in working with symptoms. These trainees would hopefully continue our work helping the “Sochi Chernobylers”; those among the 700,000 men who had cleaned up the Chernobyl accident many of whom suffer from crippling radiation-related symptoms who are living in Sochi.

The Chernobyl Project started when our friends Lev and Galina Seniev asked my husband, Joe and I to come to Sochi to work with residents who cleaned up the nuclear disaster. They were marginalized in their community partly because they had been neglected by the government. They had been promised pensions, medical care, and housing privileges by the Soviet Union at the time of the disaster. With the fall of the Soviet Union these promises were not fulfilled. These brave men became an expense to a new government trying to get established. Now people looked down on them seeing them as malingerers; miserable and needy because of radiation related symptoms about which there was little knowledge or means of treating. People avoided them believing that they could get irradiated from them. As part of our seminar we were training local psychotherapists to do process oriented symptom work. Our days were split into the morning when we worked in front of the group with these men, and the afternoon when we trained psychotherapists to do process work. We had worked with Andrei the first morning.

Andrei Day 1

We were taking a break between the morning and the afternoon during which the volunteers were meant to go home. Andrei stayed. We thought he was interested in the conversations we were having with people over tea but he was waiting to tell us wanted to work again the next day. We had worked with him on pancreatitis, a common complaint of people exposed to radiation. He had described it as a pain in his pancreas which was something like a punch. When we had asked him to show us what it was like he showed us by punching a pillow but in a very gentle way. When we asked him if the force of his punch matched his pain he said no. We asked him to show us again this time with a bit more of the force that he felt. We were seeking a movement illustration of the feeling in his body in order to get acquainted with its intensity and work more directly with his experience as he felt it.

TapTap1After many unsuccessful attempts at getting him to show us the power of the pain, we had told him that he would probably feel that the process was incomplete. We said that if we worked further we would help him complete it and find a way he could use it in his life. He got intrigued with this. During this break told us he wanted a chance to work again and complete his work. We decided we would make time for him to do it the next day.

Andrei Day 2

The next morning he began by telling us that he hadn’t wanted to experience that power because he had used it in self-defense when someone broke into his home and he had hurt the intruder. He felt remorse about this. He experienced his power as destructive and violent. Now it was as if he had packed it away; being violent was against his nature and inner ethics.

He also told us about his current situation where he was living on a street with guys who were getting rich in the post-Soviet times by engaging in illegal and exploitative practices. They drove fast, expensive cars and lived in large flats. He felt jealous of them. He lived with his wife and her daughter in an apartment that was too small for them. It didn’t seem fair that he sacrificed his health and safety to be looked down on by these folks.

Neighbour's Fast Car

Neighbour’s Fast Car

He was also having difficulty in gaining medical help. If he could qualify as an “invalid”, in this case, someone who had been “crippled” by the events of the disaster, he would be able to get benefits and medical attention that was unavailable to him as a “normal” person. He had been trying to gain this status for some time.

We continued his work from the previous day thinking that his power was needed to help him cope with these situations. With the information about his situation at home we had a context in which the experience of his pancreatitis would be useful. We could transform his experience of his power from something destructive to something that he could use to his benefit.

When he described the fast cars of his neighbors he showed them with a movement that was similar to the way he described the pain that he felt in his pancreas the day before. This was a pattern for finding access to the experience of power that was banned the day before because it had been threatening to his inner ethic to not hurt others.

Once we explored this in movement we could see traits in him that he didn’t know as part of himself: his persistence and strength. We suggested that he interact with the medical system in a role plays with us acting like the bureaucrat in the health care system. He said that in the past when he went to get help and someone wasn’t available to see him he would gave up and went home. With access to his power he would not take no for an answer, he would wait and not give up so easily. He seemed to get the point and had a new energy walking out of the room that day.

A Year Later

Andrei greets us

Andrei greets us

When we returned for the next seminar about a year later a man in his early 40s walked up to us with a smile on his face, acting like he knew us. We were shocked to see that it was Andrei. He looked younger, was in good physical shape and was standing straight. He had a hearty feeling about him. He explained to us that he had gotten his invalid status and had moved into a larger apartment. He had used the learning from the year before to help him interact with officials that could aid him. He had become the fast car.

During the seminar he said that he wanted to explain what it was like at the site of the Chernobyl accident. He drew a diagram on the white board and with impressive authority described what had happened, what it looked like when the clean up crew had gotten there and  his role in the cleanup. It was a pleasure to learn from him and see how he was now able to use his power in productive ways that both helped himself and us.

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