Interview with Sasha Bates
“By opening up my own pain for scrutiny and exploration I have enabled others to confront their grief”
Sasha Bates talks to Ben Scanlan
The author of Languages of Loss tells Ben Scanlan about her background as a therapist and yoga teacher, and explains how her book came into being when she turned to writing as a way of trying to make sense of her husband’s death.
Hi Sasha, thanks for talking to us. Can you give me a bit of your background as a therapist, and a person, and how you came to be where you are now?
I spent 18 years in the TV industry writing, directing and producing series as varied as Live and Kicking, Omnibus, Grand Designs and How to Look Good Naked, alongside travel writing for various publications, and occasionally teaching yoga.
Fed up with the way the TV industry was going, having benefited hugely from having had psychotherapy myself, and being fascinated by human dynamics, at the age of 40 I decided to re-train as an integrative psychotherapist. This I did at The Minster Centre, gaining an MA and an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy. My earlier training as a yoga teacher, and my own regular yoga practice, meant I had a particular interest in body psychotherapy, which led to a further training in Trauma Sensitive Yoga. This is an approach pioneered by Bessel Van Der Kolk at the Boston Trauma Centre which is aimed at finding a non-verbal way to work with those with PTSD and complex trauma.
Once qualified I worked in private practice as a psychotherapist, a yoga teacher and a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Teacher, which I did alongside teaching CPD workshops for therapists on various subjects to do with yoga, trauma sensitive yoga, and self-care.
When my husband, Bill, died unexpectedly, I gave up my practice and wrote my first book, Languages of Loss, which details my experience of grief as both widow and psychotherapist. I now write full time and am currently midway through my third book. I still teach CPD workshops and do lectures, but these are now more focused on the subject of grieving and how therapists can help clients find more expansive ways of expressing and understanding grief.
You write about your experience of losing your husband and best friend; what’s it like to have the book out there?
It is hard to have something so personal and so raw out in the public domain but the feedback I have received suggests that by opening up my own pain for scrutiny and exploration I have enabled others to confront their grief in helpful ways. I wrote the book as a way of making sense of my grief, and of helping myself through it, so to know that it is now supporting others brings me huge pleasure.
Your book is a conversation between your grieving self and your therapist self – how did you come up with the idea of this format? Did you see a therapist in the aftermath of Bill’s death?
I didn’t think of it as a format, it just happened organically. My life imploded, I was a confused, heartbroken wreck and the only thing I could think of to do to help myself through the agony was to almost vomit my feelings down on to the page. I’d always been a writer, so this was a natural means of expression for me and was my way of making sense of what I was feeling. As I wrote this slightly mad stream of consciousness, I found myself having light bulb moments: “Oh, so this is what they mean by anger being part of grief”, for instance. Or I would interrogate myself on the page – if I’d written something that came across as completely deranged I would find myself stepping back and then almost explaining to myself, as I might to a client, what was happening, and that this was all part of the process. I started to think about what I knew of my own habits, internal working models, attachment patterns, defences and other psychological processes and then looking at my grief through these various lenses. Having a more rational voice interjecting itself into the grieving flow of feelings became a self-regulating mechanism. So, the two voices just emerged naturally and led, after a while to the ‘therapist self’ taking up more space as she explored and examined what was going on more, while the ‘grieving self’ gradually found the waves of pain becoming less intense and less intrusive.
I did also have 10 weeks of bereavement counselling in the wake of Bill’s death and I found this helpful as a space to cry and get very in touch with the feelings without having to overload my friends, or feel too alone with them, but I did not find any sort of ‘analysis’ useful at that time. I did not need interpretation – it was all too obvious why I was feeling so awful. The more in-depth look could come only in time, and through writing the book, and doing so at my own pace. Over the year it took me to write Languages of Loss I did spend a lot of time in my peer supervision group talking about both my feelings, and about the theoretical aspects of the book as they emerged, however, and this was very helpful.
On your website you say you’d seen a number of clients who were coming to terms with bereavement, and that you realised that this is the one thing none of us can ever avoid – had you experienced previous bereavements, and how was losing Bill different?
I had lost my father five years beforehand and I recognised many similarities, particularly in my embodied responses, but losing him was in the natural order of things so didn’t blow my life apart in the way losing my partner had. The impact on my life, my sanity, my future was not the same and didn’t provoke the same intense pain nor existential crisis.
You’ve established an award in memory of Bill – what’s your hope for this?
The Bill Cashmore Award is a theatrical scholarship I set up in conjunction with The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. I hope to keep Bill’s name alive and to continue the good work he did in mentoring and resourcing young people trying to get into the theatre business.
You’ve paused your private practice as a psychotherapist; what was this decision like to make? How did you communicate your decision to your clients?
When Bill died I asked two therapists (and friends) from my peer supervision group to call my clients, explain that I had had a close personal bereavement, and tell them that I was taking a leave of absence for an unspecified amount of time. They offered to help them find another therapist in my absence but all declined, saying they would wait for me to return. Initially I had assumed that I would go back after a short break, but a couple of months after Bill’s death, and after a discussion with my supervisor, I realised that I didn’t really feel resilient enough to do so. I was still too preoccupied with my own state of mind to be able to take on board other people’s issues, and I didn’t want to go back half-heartedly as that would not have been fair on my clients, nor could I keep them hanging on indefinitely. I had got a publisher by then, and was also very busy writing, which was taking up a lot of time. Having made that decision I had a series of closing sessions with my clients to talk about how they had felt when I had ‘dropped’ them so suddenly in the aftermath, and how they felt now that I was ending with them ‘for good’. I still thought that I would return to my practice eventually – starting over with new clients in a year or so - but then I got the second and third book deals before having finished Languages of Loss, which I knew would keep me busy for a long time, as would the teaching and lecturing I was doing about grief, so then it just seemed natural to continue with those things rather than start back in practice.
That’s really interesting; did you disclose to your clients in the ending sessions what had happened to you? What had been your approach to personal disclosure as a practitioner before this?
I tend not to personally disclose, although I am not against it if it feels appropriate to a particular client and so have done so on a couple of occasions. When Bill died I did tell some but not all clients depending on whether I felt it would be useful or not for them to have the full story. They were already aware, from my long absence, that it had been a pretty major bereavement so most had guessed, and it felt wrong not to be honest with them. I also felt I needed to explain that I was now writing a book, so that they would know I wasn’t stopping purely because I couldn’t work any more as I didn’t need to worry about me and my own mental health.
You mentioned you’ve signed deals for a second and third book; can you give us any information about what they’re going to be about, where you’re up to with them and when we might be able to read them?
The second book is finished and delivered. It is called A Grief Companion and is a more practical ‘guidebook’ or ‘manual’ suggesting a multitude of ways of managing the early days of grief. I worked hard not to make it prescriptive and to make clear that grief is individual and will feel different on different days, so the suggestions are very gentle thoughts on what a griever may or may not be going through, normalising that, and offering ideas on how to manage and bear the different feelings and behaviours that could emerge. It will come out in June 2021.
The third one is called Yoga Saved My Life. I am in the very early stages of writing it. It will look at why and how yoga can be effective for so many presentations that we often see in our consulting rooms – eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression, and so on. It will look at the crossover, the similarities and the differences between exploring those issues via the body and via the mind. That is likely to come out in Autumn 2021.
They sound really interesting, especially the companion to grief. I’m interested in how you blend your experience as a yoga teacher, your training in trauma sensitive yoga and integrative psychotherapy?
I am not doing any of those roles at the moment, but when I did I kept them separate – clients would book in either for therapy, or yoga, or trauma sensitive yoga, not for a blended version of any of them. However my knowledge of each naturally informed all aspects of my work, making me a very somatic-focused therapist and a very therapist-like yoga teacher. The teaching I did, however, aimed to draw parallels between those professions, all of which, I believe, have a lot to learn from each other.
Where do you see therapy generally going over the next generation?
I think Covid is going to throw up so many new issues that therapists are going to be very busy for a long time, seeing people who might not otherwise have considered therapy. I think therapists will need to bring a whole host of new skills to the table and be open to new ways of working. By that I don’t mean just the new digital way of seeing people, but also open to even more integrative ways of working. Working with the whole person, body and mind, and also within their community and the wider global backdrop of Covid - something which we cannot deny that we as therapists are also being affected by.
Thank you Sasha. I have a fear that you’re right about Covid throwing up things for a lot of people, but a hope that as a profession we can help people adapt and understand more. People can read our review of Languages of Loss and we hope to be able to review your upcoming books as well.