therapeutic letter writing

“Unearthing Unspoken Words” with Annette Dudley

Annette Dudley stumbled her way into the therapy world after being supported by her foster carers to pursue her passion for education and having a number of mentors, supervisors and children cheering her on from the sidelines.  A significant milestone was the completion of her Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work in 2015.   In this interview, Annette reflects on her project ‘Unspoken Words’: Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present’ utilising the narrative practice of therapeutic letter writing.

Annette Dudley

Annette is a descendent of the Bailai Nation from the Gladstone area in Central Queensland, Tanna Island in Vanuatu and Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands.  Annette has held a variety of therapeutic and support roles within mental health, Aboriginal health, family violence legal services, criminal justice, sexual assault and youth services.  She currently supports youth and families as a Project Officer for Indigenous Wellbeing at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. 

This is what we explore in episode 32 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • How Annette came to study narrative therapy and community work, and why she thinks it is a culturally sensitive approach to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people
  • What led to Annette undertaking her ‘Unspoken Word’ letter writing project with Elders of her community, and the impact it had on her work and life
  • Reflections on her work on Healing Camps with the Woorabinda community and the Taroom to Woorabinda Trek
  • The impact narrative letter writing honouring people’s legacies can have on recipients and their families
  • The significance of writing a letter from an oral culture perspective
  • How the ‘Unspoken Words’ project shaped Annette’s therapeutic practice with clients
  • Exploring the fit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Indigenous clients
  • What Annette loves about using the Tree of Life methodology with clients
  • Reflections on Annette’s journey from foster child to therapist
  • Rolemodels, motivators and admirers
  • Annette’s career highlight – a sparkling moment!

To listen, simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.

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Things to follow up after the episode:

‘Unspoken Words’: Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present”

David Denborough
Cheryl White
David Epston
Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo and The Tree of Life

Contact Annette at dlzmmettswplsg(at)gmail(dot)com

Storms

Weathering the Storms of Life: An Exploration of Group Work with Tiwi Women

In March, I was invited back to the Tiwi Islands to co-facilitate a Tree of Life Workshop with Tiwi women, as part of a ‘Telling Story’ project funded by a small Suicide Prevention grant from the NT Government.

The Tree of Life is a popular methodology that has taken off globally amongst many different kinds of practitioners working in the therapeutic space.  It has very much shaped my social work practice framework and the way I incorporate use of metaphor from counselling and group work to strategic planning and evaluation.

Our workshop began with a discussion about what trees mean to the women.  We heard stories about the mango trees that were planted by the old people and that sitting under the mango trees brings feelings of connection to ancestors, which keeps women strong.  This connection is felt as a voice when the wind blows and the leaves start moving.  “We can sense the presence, their spirit is following us wherever we go.  We sense the presence of our mothers and fathers, there with us.”  The mangoes are like gifts from the old people that continue to feed the children and the future generations.

The narrative approach is about asking questions which explore the history of the knowledge, skills and values which people describe, to thicken the story and give a richer description.  As one woman described her connection to mangrove trees, we discovered she learnt to find mangrove worms to eat by going out with her grandmother and mother.  She learnt how to chop that tree by observing with her eyes and listening with her ears.  She discovered that the old logs were the better ones to  find mangrove worms and the importance of looking for tracks first.  She came to know the difference between mangrove worms and cheeky worms at an early age, by eating the wrong one.  Later on in our workshop, the same woman described how the chopping action had became a way of dealing with stress in adulthood.

The next step of the process is inviting the participants to draw a tree, perhaps one that has meaning for them.  We provided a variety of art materials such as textas, oil pastels and pencils, giving participants approximately 30 minutes to draw on an A2 size piece of good quality paper.  The drawing should include roots, a truck, branches, leaves and fruit (or nuts).  We then discuss the role and significance of each part of the tree and introduce the Tree of Life metaphor.

In exploring our roots which represents cultural heritage, we discovered stories of connection to country and culture, the significance of belonging to their skin groups and special places the women were connected to.  These roots shaped their identities as Tiwi women.  We unearthed a rich tradition of hearing “from our mothers and grandmothers, who we belong to.”  For two women, there was a reclaiming of identity with the red flower skin group, which existed before the great Tiwi wars.  We also heard a strong theme emerging about life-long learning, as if the roots of the trees were still growing and spreading.  “Sometimes learning doesn’t stop, from little ones to big ones.”  One of the women had been away from the community for a long time and had brought her children back to teach Tiwi culture.  Another spoke about learning to weave much later in life.  “It’s never too late to learn your culture”.  The women were invited to write some words on their roots about what history stories are most important to them.

Our conversation then moved to exploring the trunk of the tree representing people’s skills, abilities and values.  We noticed that some women found it difficult voicing these qualities, so we asked what important people in their lives might notice or appreciate about them in order to uncover hidden stories.  We heard stories about making art, collecting dyes for basket weaving, keeping children safe and looking after them, getting children to school every day, being a bridge between Tiwi and non-Indigenous people coming to the islands, and being the best damper maker in the family.  Many women inherited the skills of teaching and were committed to sharing their knowledge with the next generation.   Shared values of women supporting each other and keeping culture alive through dance, song and story were named, and how this contributes to their ‘trees’ staying strong.  Once again, the women documented which stories were significant to them on their tree drawing.

In exploring wishes and dreams for the future (or the strong branches reaching out), we heard shared dreams about changes for their community.  We heard hopes for Wurrumiyanga to be a better place to live, a safe place to live with no violence.  One woman dreamed about people in the community changing their attitudes, so that there is more respect, love and kindness.  She modelled this in her family through soft, gentle talk, not growling.  Others said they wanted young people to sit and learn from the Strong Elders, for kids to grow up and have a better life, to see them learn the skills of singing and dancing.  One woman wanted to talk stronger with kids when they are fighting, because she didn’t like seeing kids hurt each other, and then adults getting involved in the fighting.  There were grand hopes for a cultural centre to be built to preserve Tiwi culture, and smaller hopes for teaching basket weaving and armband making.  These wishes were linked to deeply held values of passing on strong culture to their children, so they can grow up to be the next generation of strong leaders.

Each of the women then shared personal hopes and dreams for their lives.  This included being a model, a teacher, a teachers assistant, hunters and fishers, supporters and helpers and being a better person.  Women’s hopes and dreams were recorded with photos, a moment captured in time to bring to life.

“I want to be a singer.  Nana has been teaching me singing since I was about 15 years old.  I want to teach kids how to sing when they grow up.  They will teach their kids in the future.”

“I’d like to play footy for a women’s AFL team, hopefully the Adelaide Crows.  I’ve had this dream since I was a teenager.  My grandfather saw my talent.  He’s passed away now.  But he would say “Play footy and be a good sportswoman, and be a part of it”.  I carry his voice with me.”\

Over 30 women attended the two day workshop.  This was a greater number of participants than expected, and posed a challenge for us, as facilitators, ensuring all voices are given an opportunity to be heard.  It also meant that time didn’t allow us to investigate the leaves (special people) and fruits (their gifts) as fully as we would have liked.  However, as you can see from the above quotes, this tended to occur naturally in our investigation of people’s stories.  The importance of knowing their roots, the history of their skills and abilities, and their hopes and dreams for the future, often uncovered people who were important to them and the legacies they had left.

In Day two of our workshop, we explored what it is like to be part of a Forest of Life.  The women voiced “We are all one family – we are all Tiwi” as well as recognised the unique stories and skingroups, values and beliefs, skills and abilities, hopes and dreams of each tree.  Standing back to visualise the forest of trees revealed the beauty that came from standing tall and proud, healthy and strong.  This was seen as a place where the women support each other, look out for each other, offer care, kindness, and protection.

Our final discussion around the Storms of Life unveiled the kinds of storms that women come up against.  This included domestic violence, fighting, arguing, jealousing, hate, family violence, gossip, swearing, hurt feelings, speaking bad way- especially on facebook, ignoring people, lateral violence, discriminating, putdowns, tantrums and losing family.  We explored the skills, strategies and knowledge women draw upon to stand strong in the face of these difficulties.  This knowledge was recorded in a document called ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.   It is hoped that this document would help the women ride out future storms that might blow their way.

In the concluding moments of our workshop, the women spontaneously expressed a wish to send a message to their children about their hard won knowledge and skills regarding managing storms.   This is their message – Words for Our Children.

The women of Wurrimyanga, Tiwi Islands

Sometimes, the most powerful process to occur happens after the group work is finished, by inviting other communities or individuals to witness and respond to the stories that have been gathered.  Contributions from these ‘Outsider Witnesses’ can help the storytellers feel connected to others, reduce isolation, and assist them to take action in line with their intentions and commitments.  Having a group of outsiders listening and acknowledging people’s wisdom and knowledge, validates their story and identity claim (Carey & Russell).  The Telling Story Project team will be taking Tiwi messages back to other communities they work in, to exchange messages.

If you would like to be an Outsider Witness to the stories of the Tiwi women, I invite you to download and read ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.  Use the four questions below to formulate your message and send it to us.  We will make sure your message gets sent back to the Tiwi women.

  1. Which words in this document capture your attention?
  2. What do you think these words suggest about what this person values, values, believes in, dreams about or is committed to?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with these words?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why their words meant something to you.
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this document?  What might be different in your life?

We look forward to hearing your story.
This video presentation offers a visual snapshot of our 2 day workshop.

If you would like to know more about using the Tree of Life methodology in your community, please contact us or Sudha Coutinho at the Telling Story project on sudhacoutinho@gmail.com.  We would be happy to work with you in capturing the wisdom and knowledge of your community or group, in riding out the Storms of Life.

This Telling Story project was funded through a NT Government Department of Health Alcohol Reform NGO Grant and auspiced by Relationships Australia, NT.

References and further reading:

Denborough, D. (2008), ‘The Tree of Life: Responding to vulnerable Children’ in ‘Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma’, Dulwich Centre Publications.

Carey, M. & Russell, S., (2003) ‘Outsider-witness practices: some answers to commonly asked questions’.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

Double Listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily; for example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels.  This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them.
However, people have many story lines running through their lives.  Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to?  In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people can fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid.  Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that ‘the problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

 

Eunice and Elaine share their 'strong story' of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because it challenges their values and who they are.  What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way?  What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened?  By exploring and thickening the strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience.  In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities.  I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”.
When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times.  In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare.  A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities.  Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers.  These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories.  The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

Me and some of my fellow Guides at our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.