As therapists, we are used to helping clients with their traumas and issues. I remember way back to the first Lever 2 counselling course I did where I was told that if a clients issues overlapped with my issues I might not be the best therapists to help them as it might be too confusing. Later during my Dramatherapy masters the message was I had to have worked through my own stuff and have good supervision to make sure I could help others. But Covid came for all of us at the same time. Sometimes there are traumas which are so big they impact the whole society; war, famine; Covid 19 was the thing that our generation lived through.
In the Spring of 2022, Weronika and I are sat in a restaurant, eating pizza and catching up. We shared stories about how lockdown had been for us. The theme for the conference has been announced, we know it is burnout. Weronika talks about her own experience of feeling burnout. She talks about feeling like she wants to do something creative to explore it and is thinking about the conference. I encourage her to submit and she does that night.
“Performance from inside the Burnout cage. How do I get out of this? Can I get out of here with a piece of material and a puppet. Can I be the strong one or is my strength the cage that locks me away? There is still a stigma to admitting you need help.”
Autobiographical theatre can be really powerful. Telling your story in a way which seems meaningful; carefully choosing the symbolism of the props and the music.
The Audience enters and sees Weronica on stage, inside the cage. Around the cage are the negative things people have said about her and messages from her own internal critic. Sometimes different kinds of stress can stack on top of each other.
The Cage is isolation. Sometimes as a prison enforced by shielding and lockdown. Sometimes sought as a refuge when things feel too much.
Weronika explores the nuance of burnout. At times she is angry – she used Polish rap music to express this. She also uses humour; there is a moment when she is inside the cage but tells us “it’s ok, I’m a dramatherapist, I have my resource kit. It has some pens, a ball, some cards, some cards, some cards, some cards…” My own therapy card collection is extensive, so I recognised my own strategy in that moment – “maybe just this one more pack of cards for this specific case…”.
Weronika also shared her vulnerability, her grief, fer fears. There wasn’t a magic Disney style happy ending. Some of it was resolved. Some of it was not. Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Sometimes we want things to be completely transformed; my clients set goals like “I want to go back to how it was before” or “I want to be happy, outgoing and confident”. Post-traumatic growth is always possible, but things probably won’t be “like before”. And while there will always be laughter and joy in our lives, those are not permanent states, and we can expect anger, fear and sadness to also be in our future because they are all part of being human.
Weronika showed us her Burnout Cage in this powerful performance.
She then invited us to consider our response. We adopted a body pose in response to the Cage. We then sought out others with a similar reaction and shared our reflections.
From there we began to play with the burnout cage. People picked up the messages around the cage and changed them. Some are screwed up and dropped in the cage. Others are turned into planes and thrown across the room. Some are rewritten.
The cage is also transformed. The sides are pushed in to make it smaller. Instead of the place away from the paper, it becomes the space which holds those reshaped messages. In its smaller form it is more managable.
I don’t believe what I was told back in Level 2 therapy; therapists are still human, we still go through things and have pain. We are also people committed to personal development and with a set of skills. Sometimes our experiences are what makes us the best therapist as we bring that inside knowledge and deeper understanding to our clients. Who makes a better therapist – the one who has everything together but has never had trials? Or the one who has walked a similar path before you and knows there is light on the other side?
In dramatherapy, we can play with our pain, explore it, look at it in different ways and begin to transform it. We can do this for our clients. We can do this for ourselves.
Weronika Kucharska qualified in 2018 and work for the NHS with young offenders. Having recently experienced burnout, Weronika has been putting a lot of energy into selfcare and learning how to weather the storm.