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  • Paul Raciborski

The Relevance of Moods and Emotions for Living with Acquired Brain Injury

by Paul Raciborski

Over the last couple of years I have facilitated more than 15 workshops with members of the NSW Brain Injury Association. One of the hats I wear is President of the Association. This position stems back to an acquired brain injury (ABI) I had ten years ago. The member workshops have grown out of the Level 2 Workshop on moods and emotions we did as part of the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching. One of the members of the Association who participated in this workshop said to me afterwards, “You have to share this with our members”, which I have been doing throughout metropolitan Sydney and regional New South Wales.

Typical workshop numbers range between 15 and 25. Often a person with an ABI will come with one, two or three family members, friends or even a paid carer. Sometimes there are people in the workshop who work in the sector – in psychology, therapy, casework or care. The workshops typically run from 10.00 am to 3.30 pm.

The workshop is billed as “A Conversation With Paul”. I always try to arrange the seating so everyone is in a circle and I start with story telling. I first tell my own story of how I had my ABI and what the last 10 years has been like for me. I then invite people to share their story. I believe that because I have an ABI I am able to lead this with authority, legitimacy and dignity. Every time there is a great outpouring. These are often harrowing stories but my assessment is that people appreciate the opportunity to tell their story and to be listened to with understanding. There is never any trite sympathy – “Oh you poor thing, how terrible” - followed by a quick change of subject. There is always great listening.

The sharing of stories can run for two or three hours as people have finally found a collective space to share their stories. While I am conscious of the importance of giving people the space and opportunity to share I am also aware of the need for frequent breaks so that people don’t get overtired, as people with ABI can tire easily.

After a break for some lunch and perhaps a few more stories I move on to sharing some of my ontological learnings on moods and emotions. I always frame this with how this might apply to people with an ABI and their carers. I always start by talking inviting people to reflect on their Way of Being as learners to ensure that they are not carrying what is referred to in Ontology as Enemies as Learning that may block the benefit they can get from the workshop.

Once I have briefly covered the distinction between moods and emotions – moods are emotions that stick around I introduce framework the six-pack or Some Basic Moods of Life, affectionately known in the Graduate Diploma as “the six pack”. I then talk about how this might apply to a carer, say a mother of a teenager who has an ABI as the result of a traffic accident. I talk about how she may have resentment for the driver at fault and this may well be her own son or daughter, how she will be in resignation for what she now considers to be not possible for her son or for her self and anxiety about what the future holds. I also talk about how a person with an ABI will often live in moods of resentment, resignation and anxiety.

People with ABI often struggle with ‘word finding’. They can sense what they want to say but struggle to find the words to express. Anger and frustration can build as they fight with themselves to find the words. Many people with ABI live in isolation, they are anxious about having another ‘word finding’ episode and resigned to not being able to succeed so avoid social contact. I make the point that moods can be considered as spaces for possibility and predispositions for action; your mood changes what you consider to be possible. Someone in the group always points out that this applies universally, not just to ABI.

I go on to pose the question about what moods do you think I was in for today’s workshop? Was I anxious about how it would go or curious and in wonder and wanting to ‘have a go’? Was I resigned to ‘what’s the point’ or ambitious to have a workshop that people where able to learn in?

Often people have an ah-ha moment and exclaim, “That’s me”. Some times people will describe one of their loved ones to me and ask, “What moods do you think they are in”? I love this question because it provides a great opportunity to explore, to ask, “What do you think”? I always finish by talking about mood manoeuvres; moving from resentment to acceptance, resignation to ambition and anxiety to wonder.

In every workshop there is a lot of conversation and connections between attendees being made. It is often difficult to get people back from tea and lunch breaks! I am always accompanied by one or two staff members from the Association as the workshop seem to generate more work for the staff in the form of people needing help with advocacy, with information or referral.

I take pride that my ontological learnings seem to help others. At one workshop there was a young lady who sat quietly through the stories shared by everyone else. She was the last to contribute. (I repeatedly make the point that no one should feel obligated to share but almost everyone participates). She started quietly and nervously. She was a trainee nurse at a hospital in Sydney. She was Nepalese and her fiancée at the time was Indian. One day, while walking to work, he attacked her with a hammer resulting in her ABI. He had fled back to India but had been extradited and was about to be tried. This was the first time she had related her story to anyone other than a medical therapist or a lawyer. It was a very cathartic moment for her. An advocate from the association was able to make her victim impact statement for her at her ex fiancées trail. The last I heard was that she had finished her training, was working as a nurse at a Sydney hospital and was engaged to someone else.

A number of people have been to more than one of the workshops. One person has been to at least four of the workshops held in the Sydney area. He is the foster parent of a woman in her early thirties. When she was four months old her biological father swung her by the feet into a wall to stop her crying. He uses the learnings from the workshops to reflect on his moods and emotions, his daughter’s and on those in service providers, carers and government agencies.

I did not set out to run multiple workshops but they have a momentum of their own now. I also sometimes think I should change the material and format but people keep coming to the workshops. At the end of every workshop I am left tired. I find facilitating a group with many harrowing tales to tell is hard but always uplifting.

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