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Symbolic Modelling: a story of recovery

Stefano Mastrolitti

Italian original

My first experience with Symbolic Modelling was as a patient. Or, as a client, because this word is more appropriate to define myself. In my life I suffered from mental illness and this method was a decisive turning point towards my recovery, or better still, brought all my life to a turning point.

I am a journalist, graduating in the science of communication, and I have always been used to working with words and discovering their enormous value. This is why I was able to appreciate techniques like Symbolic Modelling, Clean Language and Clean Space, techniques that put the words of the client at the center of attention.

I came upon Symbolic Modelling through my psychotherapist, Dr. Justina Claudatus. She is one of the first to import this innovative technique in Italy. When I met her I was deeply depressed, a consequence of a nervous breakdown, also confirmed by the diagnosis of my psychiatrist. To make the situation worst, in my case, I had suicidal ideation, deliriums and continuous psychotic episodes during which I experienced visual hallucinations, but mainly auditory hallucinations.

During my first session of therapy, which I still remember very well although it was a year ago, I was strongly impressed by the approach that the therapist, or the facilitator, applied. I have to admit that I was very skeptical when I met her, but I was so stressed by the previous months of illness that I was forced to start the therapy. I didn't trust this kind of treatment and I had a very mistrustful and stereotyped vision of psychotherapy: me on a sofa talking about my private stuff and a doctor sitting behind me, taking notes or recording my words. This is why the simple request to find the ideal place for me and her in the room astonished me in a positive way. This made me understand that it was not the common session of psychotherapy, as is thought by the collective imagination.

During the first sessions, guided by the clean questions of my facilitator, I created a metaphor to describe myself: a man made of smoke, with two deep black holes instead of his eyes, immersed in a dark, viscous and inextricable mud-like substance, produced by his own guts, inside which some disturbing little creatures moved. Around him, people without a face, scared by his presence, walked away from the trap of that disgusting substance around his feet. I cannot imagine what my facilitator would have thought after this opening, but I can say that later, working on it, session after session, I managed gradually to modify that initial landscape, so apparently was desolate and bleak.

Afterward, the hours spent in the studio of Dr. Claudatus has been characterized by a continue discovery of myself, made possible by the work with the metaphors, thanks to which I gained access to unexpected sides of my soul: through the metaphors I could express and accept concepts and elements that otherwise would have remained concealed and inexplicable for I don't know how long. And furthermore, it's as if I have done everything by myself, although I realize that my facilitator followed me closely, very discreetly.

Towards the end of the first phase of therapy the man made of smoke progressively took on human characteristics, until he had definite physical appearance, regaining his eyes, a smile and facial features. The surrounding landscape, which at the beginning was a grey and foul smelling city, characterized by gloomy tone and indifference of its inhabitants, changed its horizon into a luxuriant countryside. Inside this rural area there was a solid and comfortable house, which was mine, placed in the green of nature and the blue of a limpid sky.

There have been many other metaphors that I have discovered and learned to modify to my favor: a good example is the image of me when I was a child, hidden in the dark of a cupboard under the stairs. With Symbolic Modelling I helped that child march out, nurturing him as if he were my own child. Or the bars of a claustrophobic prison through which I could see a gleam of sunlight, savoring once again the fresh and pure air, once I had finally got out through the bars with my whole body. Or, another example: some cockroaches, that I believed infested all the places I had been, which from hideous monsters became insignificant bugs, easy to crush.

But maybe the most important metaphor was born in the most delicate phase of my recovery. During the first months of the therapy I lived for a long and painful period in complete isolation: I had cut out all my contacts with the external world, believing that everybody was against me, ready to hurt me, to such a point that I was convinced that even the radio, the tv and the newspapers were talking badly about me. Except for my parents, I was incapable of meeting anyone, I did no activities and I went out of my house just for the psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Claudatus. Overcoming this phase of heavy depression, the critical moment to march out arrived, regaining a relationship with the outside world. And here again Symbolic Modelling helped me. Guided by my therapist I created a metaphor: a dive into the sea, from the top of a very high cliff, reached with strong efforts during the previous months. The more I stared at the picture I had drawn on that occasion, the more I wanted to take that jump that represented my return into society. I analysed this metaphor from every possible perspective thanks to Clean Space, till the moment when I was ready to face that big challenge – without being blocked by the fear of the sea. Then I was encouraged by the desire to feel the beautiful sensation of freedom that only water can give.

So, thanks to Symbolic Modelling, I have learned to confront every single symptom of my condition: hallucinations, that were extremely judging voices in my head, deliriums, that took the place of real life, and depression, that illness I thought I could not defeat. Thanks to Symbolic Modelling, with a great effort, I have been able to take the control of my life again, redirecting it towards new and important goals.

Now, that I can look back, and realize all the big steps I have made, I understand how much this technique has been important for my recovery and this is why I decided to participate to the course held by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, organized in Italy by Dr. Claudatus. In a full immersion of four days I learned the technique from the therapist's point of view and I noticed how much rigours and how much attention on details there is behind the methods inspired by David Grove, concealed behind a language that is bare and essential just on the surface. In the meanwhile I had the good fortune of meeting two incomparable teachers that have the great merit to engage directly with all the participants on the course, without dwelling on wordy explanations, but letting us try out on ourselves the effectiveness of the techniques they teach. At the end of the course Penny and James asked everyone to find a metaphor to represent Symbolic Modelling. For me the most appropriate metaphor was: two people walking on the beach hand in hand, neither of them guiding the other, but walking side by side. The horizon is clear and sometimes they look back at the footprint of their steps, but then they turn around to look forward again.

During my journey through the illness, that actually is not over yet, I suffered a lot and I explored the most obscure ravines of my subconscious, but punctually, once a week I find comfort in the session. During the sessions, a bit more each time, my facilitator helped me to wash away the evil that took control of my mind. All done with humility, which I think is the basic attitude of this unique technique. Every session, every new metaphor, every single change were like little injections of confidence to me. I only realized how important these were when I started to feel good. It was like having a puzzle to be completed always in front of me: the facilitator did not put a new piece of the puzzle in my hand, or find it for me, but she helped me, with her words as a guide, to find the right piece at the right moment and then encouraged me to add it to the puzzle. In this way, little by little, I organized the chaos at the beginning of the illness and now the puzzle is nearly complete.

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