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After overcoming self-esteem issues, Brisbane doctor Duncan Stewart becomes an Elvis impersonator

People often say to me, “Oh, I can’t sing” and I laugh and say, “I thought that too, once!” Now you can’t shut me up when I get on stage. I was a very shy child and most of my life; I had this great sense of inferiority. You can’t get up and sing until you’ve dealt with your self-esteem issues.
Brisbane doctor Duncan Stewart

I graduated as doctor from the University of Queensland in 1973 and after a few years working clinically with patients in western Queensland, I moved into hospital and healthcare management in Brisbane and Sydney. I then ran a successful consulting business in quality improvement and patient safety for 20 years. I travelled all over Australia and New Zealand and the US and would speak to thousands of people at conferences. I was successful on all external indicators but I always felt this great emptiness inside.

When I was 50, I stumbled across this thing called Hoffman Process, which was a one-week residential at Byron Bay run by psychotherapists, and it changed my life. It made me realise that my sense of feeling inadequate was just a story I had made up for myself and I’d believed it.

I had a great childhood but the problem for me was my grandfather was Duncan Thomas, a famous rugby league genius who played for Australia and went on to be a legendary coach and selector. Because of him, as a child I’d always felt this weight of expectation and felt I was hopeless in comparison. Hoffman sort of unlocked me. When I left, I felt like I was walking on cloud nine and I relaxed into myself and became the person I was meant to be.

I’d always been attracted to music and at university I’d organised the med balls and inter-college cabarets, but always behind the scenes. After Hoffman I thought, I wonder if I can sing? So, I found a singing coach and he said, “of course you can sing” and from that moment you couldn’t stop me. I kept working in health care – I was the deputy director of medical services at RBWH [Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, 2005-2010] and then director of of medical services for Fraser Coast Health Service [2011-2012], but singing was a huge passion I did whenever I got the chance. I’d go into cafes or restaurants on the Gold Coast and Brisbane and make them an offer they couldn’t refuse: “I’ll be your resident entertainer – you don’t have to pay me; just let me sing”.

doctor duncan stewart with mother joan

The doctor who prescribes embracing joy Duncan Stuart serenades his mother, Joan

I love performing ‘50s and ’60s music with a soft spot for Elvis, so I specialise in him. My mum, Joan Stuart, 96, is in an aged care service at Burleigh so I go down there every couple of months and do a [free] concert. Every Christmas Day I do a special Elvis concert for them and walk around the place with a portable microphone and give all the residents a gift. They love it and I love it. For the past five years I’ve also been one of the singers in Brisbane City Council’s annual Lord Mayor’s Seniors Cabaret, which gives seniors with an interest in singing free coaching and then we go around town doing concerts. It’s so much fun that it inspired me to start up weekly open-mic sessions at two Men’s Sheds I’m involved in. We have one at [westside] indooroopilly every Friday afternoon and another at South Brisbane every Tuesday. It’s open to the public and the only rule is that every performer gets the same applause.

I retired, then deregistered myself as a doctor six years ago. Now, the highlight of my week is when my wife, Alina Sarosiek, 65, and I babysit [Alina’s two-year-old biological grandson] Xavier. I don’t take any other appointments that day because he’s so much fun to look after. I never had children of my own because my first wife and I weren’t able to, so it’s a total joy to have Xavier in our lives.

Alina and I met when I was singing in a cafe at [Brisbane’s] Roma Street Parkland five years ago. She happened to walk in and I sang her a couple of songs and we just clicked. We got married by Elvis in Las Vegas in 2014. We thought, stuff this, [it’s our] second marriage, let’s have some fun! I love Alina dearly. I couldn’t have predicted the way my life has turned out. It’s a delight.

First appeared in: 23 June 2018 in The Courier Mail’s Q Weekend magazine

To learn more about Bob’s work, the theoretical underpinnings of the Hoffman Process, please read The Negative Love Syndrome and the Quadrinity Model© A Path to Personal Freedom and Love, by Bob Hoffman. Free download available here

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Interview with ERICA GARZA on Addiction and ‘Ordinary Trauma’

US Hoffman Graduate Erica Garza and her new book ‘Getting Off’

Erica Garza struggled with the loneliness and shame of sex and porn addiction for two decades, during which she tried many self-help routes, including Hoffman. The Process helped her to connect with a key childhood event which proved particularly enlightening. Now happily married, Erica is determined to help others to understand the link between addiction and ‘ordinary trauma’ with the launch of her new book Getting Off.

Jeanette: Some people might consider sex and porn addictions to be comparatively ‘glamorous’ compulsions, as opposed to drug addiction, for example. What’s the price of a sex addiction, and do you have any insight into what sent you down your particular path?

Erica: I think the reason I chose sex and porn (beginning with chronic masturbation) was accessibility. I stumbled across softcore porn and started to explore my body when I was 12, and these were things I could reach for in secret behind closed doors whenever I wanted them. Then with the growth of the internet, accessibility was even better. In retrospect, I don’t think there was anything particularly abnormal about my sexual curiosity, however soon after I was diagnosed with scoliosis and underwent major spinal surgery including the insertion of two Titanium rods in my spine. As well as the pain and discomfort this led me to feel incredibly self-conscious and fearful of social rejection. I found that masturbation and porn were effective methods of escaping these big, scary feelings and I quickly grew to depend on them in order to cope. I often used sex or porn as escape methods to sooth me from emotional distress. Oftentimes this pursuit was fuelled by adrenaline and, post-orgasm, led to feelings of shame, a feeling of disconnectedness, and even emptiness.
Sex addiction is rarely sexy. When I think back, sure there were moments of exhilaration, but mostly there was desperation, lying, loneliness, and shame. The most significant price I paid for being a sex addict was feeling so alone and cut off from other people. I knew how to float through relationships, how to keep things light and easy, but when it came to love and to caring or being cared for—I considered those things too risky, which led me to feel like I was only living halfway.

Jeanette: Is abstinence a valid approach to the treatment of sex or porn addiction, in your experience?

Erica: Every addict must do the work to identify his or her own unique methods of acting out. My addictive behaviours consisted of obsessing about sex, bingeing on porn, having frequent unprotected casual sex encounters, lying, and sabotaging meaningful relationships. In the early stages of my recovery, I took a break from watching porn and settled into a committed, monogamous relationship and these were important steps for me because they gave me the time and space I needed to face all the emotional distress I’d been running from and to start integrating new, healthier habits in my life. But, over time, I started to feel like I was cutting off important aspects of my sexuality. I still wanted to be an open-minded, experimental sexual person, but I didn’t want sex to be the main driving force of my life. I didn’t want to lie or destroy my relationships or feel ashamed. These were important truths to consider and I realized that my focus had to be less on abstaining completely and more on achieving balance.

Jeanette: Have you found that acknowledging and working on recovery from your addictions has made sex less enjoyable for you?

Erica: On the contrary, sex is more fulfilling, intimate, and even empowering now. I no longer feel empty or ashamed after I have sex. I’ve been able to develop a new type of relationship with my sexuality—one that is guilt-free, open-minded, and connected.

Jeanette: You mention in your book ‘Getting Off’ that you tried other self-help courses before you did Hoffman, yet it plainly made a big impression. What made the Process stand out for you?

Erica: The Process gave me the time and space to reflect on how I’d learned my patterns—sexual and otherwise—extend compassion to myself, and make real changes. The Process was also extremely practical—I learned tools that I could take with me to continue learning about myself while cultivating healthier ways of living and thinking. If it weren’t for the Process, I probably would never have realised the significance of my sexual addiction coinciding with the trauma of being diagnosed with scoliosis and consequentially bullied—all happening at 12 years old. On the Process I was able to look back and reclaim the girl who wanted so badly to be loved and to care for her in ways she—and I—still desperately needed.

Jeanette: You say that ‘trauma can be ordinary’. So does that mean even someone who’s had a relatively ‘normal’ childhood could benefit from something like the Process?

Erica: Absolutely. Many people think that sex addiction, especially when it comes to a woman, must be preceded by a traumatic event like rape or molestation. But sex addiction can happen to anyone. I consider my trauma ‘ordinary’ in comparison to the kind of suffering many other people face. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, loving home. I never went to bed hungry or faced abuse. Yet, I developed unhealthy patterns of dealing with not just scoliosis and bullying, but feeling left out when my parents had another child, feeling socially anxious in my teenage years, feeling insecure about my bodily changes, etc. These are the types of everyday problems or ‘traumas’ that many young people face and sometimes try to escape in ways that aren’t helpful.

What’s unfortunate is that most of us feel like our ordinary pain isn’t valid. We shut down and keep our stories to ourselves. We pretend we‘re happy and grateful and yet still live in pain or numbness. What’s amazing about the Process is that I was able to face these kinds of problems without judgement or criticism. My pain was just as valid as anybody else’s. My patterns were worth working on. The Process is beautifully inclusive.

Jeanette: Do you think that the Process principles could apply to other addictions?

Erica: I lean towards the definition of addiction given by neuroscientist and author Marc Lewis, in that it is a “developmental phenomenon.” He told the Guardian Australia, “You grow into addiction. It takes place in a sequence or a progression through repeated trials, through repeated exposure, repeated actions, and through practice.” If you look at addiction this way—as a series of repeated behavioural patterns—then it’s difficult to argue that something like the Process, which focuses on understanding and revising our patterns, can’t be helpful.

People sometimes feel it’s selfish to spend so much time and money on themselves. Do you think it’s been worth it? The Process gave me clarity and a compassionate outlook on my past, which can never be taken away. In addition to practical tools and connection to a growing community, it helped me to have more authentic and meaningful relationships with my husband, my family members, and my friends. I was also able to focus more on cultivating my career, which made the investment worth it.

Jeanette: What was your motivation in sharing something so intimate and how has that been for those around you?

Erica: So many men and women who struggle with sex and porn addiction do so in silence, feeling terribly ashamed and isolated. I wanted to help them feel less alone by sharing my story. The messages I receive everyday proves that I succeeded.

Jeanette: What advice would you give to somebody who feels they may be struggling with similar issues?

Erica: The most important thing is to know that you are not alone. I think talking about your issues is an important first step and a great place to start is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings. Even if you don’t do the twelve steps or don’t subscribe to a higher power, you’ll have access to a community of like-minded people who can offer support. Also, don’t be afraid to try a variety of methods to see what works for you. I tried 12-step meetings, the Process, yoga, meditation, kickboxing, writing, tantra, self-help books… the list goes on and on. Sometimes you find one thing that works. Sometimes you find it’s the combination of things that works. The important thing is that you don’t stop trying or learning about yourself. I know I never will.

To read more about Erica’s journey, visit: http://www.ericagarza.com

To read an excerpt from Erica’s book Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, or to order, click here.

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Rosalie Higson’s Personal Story: Deconstructing Rosalie

After a series of family tragedies overloaded her with grief, Rosalie Higson decided radical therapy was needed to get her life back on track.

Hand on my heart, I never thought I would be bellowing the c-word and beating out my most personal pain in the company of a dozen near-strangers all experiencing a similar catharsis. In the windowless room, the intensity levels shot up to fever pitch as we dredged up screams, yells and growls from our deepest hidden places. Sometimes, as weariness set in, we groaned imprecations or muttered repeated obscenities. A couple of men tore off their shirts. Bodies leaked tears and sweat, and hands began to blister as we laboured on and on until we reached exhaustion, or a second wind set us off again to reach new heights of rage.

And that was only day two. The group – a dozen people of varying sizes, ages and nationalities – all carried troubles and neuroses. Some were the survivors of devastating experiences, of abuse, war zones or families at war. All of us were stuck in harmful or unproductive habits, or bad relationships, or were unable to love, or feel alive, or to just walk in the world.

Sceptic that I am, I was surprised how easy it was to slip into the Hoffman Process, eight days of private and group therapy and physical workouts. I was ready to do whatever it took because, at the time, I was an emotional wreck.

How can I have arrived, at the venerable age of 60-ish, with such a load of unexpressed grief, anger and shame weighing me down? Well, it originated from the legacy of suicide in my family: my mother, my grandmother, a cousin. Suicide of a loved one leaves a long-lasting, painful trail of guilt hanging around like a black cloud on the horizon, or the infamous black dog.

Children blame themselves for bad things happening in the family: my two brothers and I had received a double dose of emotional toxicity, passed on through the generations. And my family refused to acknowledge this. After Mum died, we didn’t share, we didn’t even talk; we denied, big time, long time, full time. Denial is a habit that’s hard to break, because secrets beget shame.

Last year, by chance, I discovered that my younger brother Peter, an alcoholic, had died alone in 2010. No one traced his relatives, so his body was cremated in the modern version of a pauper’s funeral. His ashes are scattered around the gardens at Sydney’s Rookwood crematorium. His role in the family was the black sheep. And mid-this year, I received a phone call with shocking news. My older brother had taken a rifle, laid on his bed and shot himself. Philip was the good son, the brave SES cliff-rescue expert, the helpful, generous man with a loving wife and daughter, and yet the family curse had touched him, too. I was the good girl turned rebel, and now the last woman standing.

The burden of losing my brothers became intolerable and the following days and weeks were hell. At times I thought I would choke. It was time to ask for help because I did not want to go down the same road as Peter and Philip. The buck stops here, I decided.

Before signing on for the course (which costs about $5000, although this journalist was offered it gratis), I’d done what any thinking person would do. I Googled, in case I was being lured into a cult, or one of those crazy courses where they scream at you and forbid toilet breaks. None of that turned up; in fact, everything I read was positive. Moreover, the way course developer Bob Hoffman condensed long-term therapy into a shorter, sharper experience appealed. The literature talked about reconciling body, soul, emotions and intellect (the Quadrinity) and showing “a path to personal freedom and love”. And meditation. I like meditation. I was nervous, but up for it. I was also deep in denial when I thought, “How hard could it be?”

As one wise therapist said, if it was easy, everyone would do it. The work started well before I set foot in Sangsurya Retreat, just outside Byron Bay on the NSW far north coast. First, I had to be accepted into the course via an interview with veteran psychotherapist and Hoffman teacher, Volker Krohn. Krohn, who was trained by Hoffman, has shepherded people through the process since 1990.

Next, a massive – and intimidating – questionnaire arrived in my inbox. Questions about myself, family, relationships, work, children, personality traits and habits, good, bad and indifferent. Nothing escaped notice. This kind of task made me want to whitewash my life but, bravely shucking off the family trait of denial, I went down memory lane, recalling scenes and events from earliest childhood and how I felt at the time and how they had affected me. As my tally of miserable traits and unsociable habits grew rather alarmingly (hey, I’m really a good person!), I wondered how I had managed to inherit so much from my parents even though I had been determined not to be like them. Of course, there was a box to tick for that, too.

After hours of concentration, and tallying up the answers, I realised I was way short of the total the Hoffman Centre recommends, so I had to pick over my life once again, thinking harder, drilling deeper. There was nowhere to hide. But then I pressed Send and tried to forget about it – hard when I was incredibly self-critical (thanks, Mum), and worried that I’d done it all wrong (thanks, Dad) and would be outed as self-deluded or a show-off (thanks, Mum). One of the questions was, “Do you lie?” To that I wasn’t able to put an honest or dishonest answer; it just seemed too complicated. When? Socially? To myself? Of course the answer was yes, I just didn’t want to admit it. I mean, everyone lies, right?

Revisiting the old history brought nightmares. Alongside the warm and fuzzy memories, such as watching the sun set riding on Dad’s shoulders, some real shockers rose up out of the mists of time, from when my mother was in the grip of alcohol and possible insanity: her dragging me around and ripping out big hunks of hair, or trying to smother me in bed. Nevertheless, as Socrates so aptly said, and I had come to realise, the unexamined life is not worth living, so on I pressed.

Bob Hoffman was an intuitive, clever and somewhat brash retired Jewish tailor who was part of the personal-development movement that emerged in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s. Hoffman’s thesis was that we tend to reproduce the behaviours, good and bad, we learn from our parents to earn their approval, attention and love. (To take my case, for example: I not only had my mother’s eyes, but also her traits of self-criticism, impatience and vindictiveness, plus my father’s workaholism and resulting abandonment of those close to me, whether I realised it or not.) Hoffman argued that we unknowingly repeat those patterns in our own lives, or spend a lot of energy rejecting them, or attracting those with the same patterns.

Over the eight days of the course, that old rhyme, “Wherever I go, whoever I see, I see Mummy and Daddy, and they see me”, came sharply into focus. I realised this was why I could never get my tax in on time: the authority figures in my childhood were so erratic and dangerous that engaging with them mostly did not end well. I’d transferred that fear onto many other authority figures, no matter how remote – even the tax man. I also recalled my mother’s ridiculous (or so it seemed to me as a rebellious teenager) reverence for priests, politicians and police. Plus ça change …

Participants gathered in groups and in one-on-one sessions with facilitators to identify their patterns, then worked through them, at first with anger – or, as in my case, incandescent rage – then understanding and moving to forgiveness. Meanwhile, we were led to recognise the power of emotions, and how interactions between body, spirit, intellect and emotions affected us. We all know people whose intellect rules, and others who are slaves to their emotional inner child (I’ve worked for a few). The Hoffman Process provided tools for identifying and sorting out the feelings that have a negative impact on your life, where they come from, how they manifest in your body (for example, I clench my jaw, and my back aches in times of stress) and how to shift them.

There was also “therapy” of a light-hearted kind, with much silliness and crazy, childlike group projects. I hadn’t laughed that hard in years, literally, and it felt exceptionally good, even liberating, because over the past few years every time I laughed my throat would close up and I would begin coughing. As I unguardedly yahooed and yelled among the mayhem, I suddenly recalled my mother’s thin, high voice, squeezed through a throat tight with tension …

In Australia, 5000 people have gone through the Hoffman Process. But proselytising by those who’ve done the course is not really encouraged: which is probably why it’s not so well known. And also because it’s deeply personal and serious work: as Krohn said, “We don’t take people who are upset because daddy won’t buy them a Porsche.”

So there we were, high above Byron Bay at the serene Sangsurya Retreat, where gardenias and jacarandas bloomed among the eucalypts and palms, and the only sounds were the wind swooshing through the trees and the boom of distant surf on Tallow Beach. Not so much as a flushing loo disturbed the harmony, because the toilets were the Swedish composting type: just throw in a handful of sawdust and close the lid.

I unpacked and looked around my accommodation: the shower room had a wall of glass looking over a rainforest valley where bush turkeys forage. So peaceful. But first-day nerves set in as I looked around the communal dining room at my fellow intake. “Oh Lord, I’ve made a big mistake. Who are these people? Help!” Everyone was quietly eyeballing everyone else. We all made snap judgments, then found out later how wrong we were.

And so our journey began: through Mother’s Day, then Father’s Day – highly emotional times devoted to analysing and freeing our anger about each parent, which involves cathartic exercises like hitting a big blue cushion with a bright yellow bat, over and over. Then calming days to restore and integrate all we’d learnt, and days to have some fun and initiate projects together, then back to the serious stuff, of how to bring all this new knowledge into our lives. We worked from 8.30am to 10pm each night, plus homework. We had excellent meals and great coffee and plenty of toilet breaks. But no phones, no iPads, no internet, no sex, no books, no distractions – these were the rules – and precious little time to worry. I used my phone as an alarm clock and didn’t even glance at the number of messages, emails or missed calls; I was so deep into the work the outside world had completely receded. Every minute of the day is planned and accounted for. I have my suspicions that even the wildly popular comfort-food dessert at dinner on day one – apple crumble with custard, cream and ice-cream – was part of the master plan.

We all signed a confidentiality agreement. So within this safe environment, the group began to open up, and soon even the most buttoned-up dropped their inhibitions. From the first day, rapport built steadily. But old habits die hard: on the second evening, after a long and emotional day, I finished my dinner and went to leave the dining room. At the door I turned, and everyone else was hugging, giving each other empathy and support. I just walked out – I wasn’t quite ready for this. But that night I told myself not to be so stupid: isolating oneself (aka “poor me”) is a negative and vindictive habit. Next morning, when one of the group members opened his arms, I jumped right in.

Inevitably, this type of experience stirred up many feelings. Sometimes I felt a flash of irritation, occasionally my energy would flag and the tasks seemed all-consuming. There was no chance to sneak off to the beach or skip a session. I slipped on gravel and had a black toe and barked shin, then got a cold and coughed all through meditations. Others had wobbly moments, too, but none of my worst fears materialised: no one gasped in horror or turned away when they heard my story. As Krohn says, everyone thinks their shame is the worst.

My cynical side occasionally popped up. “Pan pipes?” it whispered one afternoon, when I was deep into a beautiful meditation full of music and poetry. “Seriously, pan pipes?” But those killjoy moments were few and far between. A couple of compassion exercises using pen and paper – writing long screeds about your parents’ childhoods, and conversing with them as if they were children – left a lasting impression. I had always examined Mum and Dad’s lives through a sociopolitical lens – the effects of the Great Depression and World War II, the strictures of the conservative Irish-Catholic working class, women’s role in 1950s suburbia – which allowed me to stand back, I now realised. This work cut to the chase: your parents were once vulnerable children, who had also suffered greatly, and had repeated the patterns they learnt from their parents.

Then, suddenly, the week was done. my group, my new close friends who knew more about me than anyone else, stood in the car park clutching graduation certificates, a thick “instruction manual”, and a bunch of drawings. I hugged everyone for the last time, feeling like a chick just out of the egg. It was strongly recommended that graduates spend the next two days in a quiet retreat, alone, in order to gently ease back into business as usual. Good advice, because suddenly the world was in my face, cars ripping up the streets, people everywhere, phones demanding attention. In my hotel room, I felt briefly terrified and teary and raw. The next day was less shaky, although I had a tendency to be amazed at everything: the rising sun, my breakfast cinnamon toast, a magazine illustration, a passing baby. As the day went on, I gradually came back to earth, enjoyed a fish dinner, walked by the Richmond River, took a plane home.

Has my life changed? It’s only been a few weeks. I can say I am stepping lightly on the earth: that great weight of toxic grief, shame and guilt I carried has gone. In its place is a sense of calm. Of course, I will always be saddened by what happened to my family, but I no longer blame myself – or them. Some of the old Rosalie is back, vital and energetic – and wiser.

Lifeline: 13 11 14.

This story originally appeared in Good Weekend. Find Good Weekend on Facebook at facebook.com/GoodWeekendMagazine

The story Deconstructing Rosalie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.