A psychotherapist’s lived experience in-session with an asylum seeker and translator: An autoethnographic case study
Featured in this article is a psychotherapy case study recounted from the lived experience of the psychotherapist working with an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, with the help of a translator. The method applied is an aesthetic inquiry adapted from Autoethnography which engages the practitioner as the researcher who enters the ‘field’ of the therapy situation. The reflexive writing of the case story, which is integral to the method, sets off a heuristic process, integrating research and practice. Reading this case study, one may grasp the nuances and the atmosphere of an otherwise linguistically challenging therapeutic situation. The story and Gestalt therapy theory are weaved together, which makes palpable, intangible aspects of the therapeutic process.
Keywords: autoethnography, psychotherapy case studies, psychotherapy process research, gestalt therapy, aesthetic inquiry
An excerpt from the Story in the Article
“I want to be confident, but something in my past is stopping me,” Zaya translates.
I give Ali a nod to acknowledge what I am hearing. He smiles back at me. His jacket hangs on a clothes rack by the door. This is the start of our second session.
Ali’s opening sentence this morning feels like an invitation. Ali stands by a threshold between the future and the past. He points us in the direction of the past. I see him shudder. I shudder, though I do not know what it is I am seeing. I am interested, in earnest. I am also wary. I lean back.
I ask Ali what he meant by the past stopping him from being confident.
“Uncle.” Ali explains that uncle is the younger brother of his father. Ali was put in the care of uncle and his wife when he was 9 years old. Till he turned 18, Ali lived with the couple and their daughter, who’s a little younger than Ali. “I always hear uncle say, ‘you will come to nothing. Nothing’.”
“What would you say to him right now, if he is sitting here?” I ask.
Ali clenches a fist, then promptly holds it down with the other hand. “I have no words, nothing.”
“Yes.” I say. I give space to the young man’s rage. Zaya reaches gingerly for a filled paper cup and takes a sip. Ali and I follow suit.
I ask him how he got to be put in the care of uncle.
“After school I play football. The playground is near my house. One day, I was playing football, then the bomb of the Taliban exploded on our house.” Zaya translates this, ice cold. They were all home when it happened; Ali’s father Zabi, his mother, Fatemeh and his baby sister Khatere. Ali’s voice cracks as he mentions the name of his baby sister. He stares, glassy-eyed, blank.
The skin on the back of my neck tingles. I glance towards the radiator by the window, as if to check if it was turned on properly. No, the air in the room is not cold. I am being touched by phantoms who have now descended amongst us. I search my bag for paper, only to find a dog-eared stack of neon coloured post-its. I write, “Zabi”, “Fatemeh”, “Khatere”, on three little sheets, careful to get the spelling right. I lay the post-its on the coffee table. I feel tears well up in my eyes. The space between us is saturated.
“How… are… you?” Ali asks me in English, then giggles.
“Thank you, Ali,” I say. “I slept well, so this morning you have my fullest attention.”
“How about you, Zaya,” I ask.
I catch a slight blush in her cheeks, as she giggles, “very well.”
“Ali says that he doesn’t sleep well. For example last night he had a bad dream. A nightmare.” Zaya translates.
“There is the mafia,” Ali says, “who is raiding the castle. Me and my friends are hiding in it. The mafia shoots me. I’m almost dying and my friends save me. My father is there. Oh. But that is only for a short time. I fall out of the window and run away.”
We share a round of chuckling. I offer Ali and Zaya a suggestion to do a chair work. Zaya’s eyes lights up. I’m aware that she had read much about the Gestalt therapy method of working with dreams. “I’m not sure if you’d like to try this exercise.” I say to Ali, who is probably sensing Zaya’s interest.
“Yes. Yes,” is his reply.
“Well, if at any time either of you are feeling unwell doing this dreamwork, say stop.” I tell them.
“Yes. Yes,” he says.
Zaya translates, “What do I do?”
So we set the stage with empty chairs around us. I am thankful for having booked this larger room again this morning. Ali puts a chair for “the mafia” a distant right from his. He then says that the rows of chairs stacked up along the wall of the room are where his friends sit. He takes the last chair and places it close behind him slightly to his left; there Ali seats his father.
Chew-Helbig, N. (2022). A psychotherapist’s lived experience in-session with an asylum seeker and translator: An autoethnographic case study. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 1-16.
Find this Journal here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13642537.2022.2156138
or request a copy from me.