Open group for the community – an Albanian experience – Irena Beqja Shtraza, Anxhela Gramo

Botuar në revistën “Gruppenanalyse” të Institutit të Analizēs së Grupit, Heidelberg, Gjermani. Shtraza & Gramo. Eine offene gruppe für die Gemeinschaft – eine albanische Erfahrung. “Gruppenanalyse”. 2021(31)

The article gives a snapshot of the Albanian group-analytic journey through the explorative experiences with/in the community. A truthful account of struggles and dilemmas, as well as enthusiasm and trust is illustrated through recollections, reflections and integration of a complexity of dynamics and group (intra-group) processes. The Albanian initiative, though structurally different from RC projects, shares the same aim, that of learning the language of human connection. The privilege and the responsibility for building trust in a traumatized society represent a challenge for the founders of group analysis in Albania. The description of this initiative brings a closer look at the interaction of the matrices at play when social becomes individual and the past becomes the present. By adapting and responding to the trainees’ group needs, the team came into contact with the capacity to create and provide – an open group for the community – the space and the time that Albanians have been deprived from.

It is not easy to be the youngest at the group analytic field and one of the most socio-politically oppressed among the citizens of the European community. The history of our open group for the community reflects the experience of the Albanian Association for Group Analysis, an experience of becoming by creating our space through our initiatives. Sometimes, it felt uncomfortable, triggered shame and doubts about growing up properly. It was encouraging to be given the trust to explore in writing the trajectory of our community group; in other words, the process of how we created a transitional space for ourselves to manage the emotions of a toddler: a school of group analysis in

The beginnings of the Albanian group-analytic journey
Introduction to group analysis in Albania started in 2014. This acquaintance was initiated by two Albanian psychotherapists in collaboration with Robert Harris, a senior group analyst from the Institute of Group Analysis, London. Among thirty students who attended introductory courses in group analysis since 2015, a core group of twelve trainees moved to the qualifying course, and at the moment ten trainees are moving ahead with the program. The same group of students represents the founding members of the association “Group Analysis in Albania” (GAA). The training program is organized by the Group Analysis in Albania in collaboration with the Institute of Group Analysis, London. Enthusiastic about the new experience of discovering ourselves in groups through groups, we were not much aware of the boundaries at the very beginning. Parenting ourselves exposed us to a great vulnerability because we couldn’t survive our “multiple roles” and “new lives” without interdepending on each – other. Fears of surviving not losing oneself were present. Our group came to life through groups’ life composed of the same people. As suggested by Earl Hopper (2003), a traumatized society is characterized by the failure of dependency. Thus, interactions between interpersonal, organizational and societal matrices were/are at the heart of the dynamic processes in our organization, which are as well projected and manifested into our community groups, too. It is now a tradition in Albania to organize awareness events on the occasion of mental health day. Invited to give our contribution to a new way of reflecting about mental health issues, our association thought of offering a group experience, away from boring round tables talks. This is how we started on October 2017. To our surprise, approximately 70 people showed up, among which youngsters, parents, teachers and professionals. We decided to have a group of three facilitators because the responsibility and anxiety was enormous. The rest of trainees sat with participants and allowed themselves to associate freely with the group material. Participants were invited to sit in concentrically arranged circles for 90 minutes and talk about drug abuse and addiction. It seemed like the community responded to a topic of a great sensitivity because the drug’s theme brings us all closer to the fear of annihilation (Hopper, 2003) provoked by the cumulative social and political traumatic experiences embedded in the Albanian society. At the beginning, the exchanges between participants looked like drowning boats asking for help. While the group started talking about the preoccupation thoughts and feelings of drug abuse, this shifted to denigration of those who abuse with drugs, while it ended with the screaming need of the participants to speak up for oneself and a covert need of longing for understanding. The youngsters talked about their lack of freedom and the restrictions felt by parents and society; while the parents expressed their helplessness and fears of failure helping their children. The person suffering from drug addiction was perceived either as “wrong who needs to be fixed” or, as “devil who needs to be condemned”. It was clear that this group experience brought into open air taboos which divided participants into those who fear and those who understand. Shame, an unrecognized anger and tears of a deep sorrow were the dominant features in the group process. At the end, while parents and teachers left with disappointment because of their expectations coming to this group to get advice about drug addiction, youngsters left with feelings of liberation and satisfaction, asking for further group experiences like this.

A creative endeavor’s structure, process and content
Encouraged by the response of the community and inspired by the wish to start exploring the social traumas of Albanians, a population indelibly marked by a 50 years long and repressing dictatorship, the trainees, though yet very young in their new journeyas future group analysts decided to experiment something new – running open experiential groups with the community. Open, monthly, median-size (de Maré et. al., 1991) groups with a duration of 90 minutes, located in the capital, Tirana. It was quite an experiment, a jump into the unknown and it took an enormous courage to start. An appropriate space was found where a large circle could be set, announcements were made on the institutions FB page, all social links of the trainees were used to let as many people know about the group. Based on the feedback received after the first community group experience, our immense confusion about what we were creating, the team thought that this new, daring setting needed a topic, as an axis to seize for all those curious, yet confused who could join. For several months different topics were proposed, trying to keep it as vague as possible, until the day came when the team decided that it was time to just keep it simple – naming it as it simply was, an experiential open group for the community. In the beginning only few people joined our open group, resulting in a median group where often time the trainees outnumbered the other group members. The group was most attractive to young women, usually university students. However, in these three years of the life of this group, many people join time to time, some staying loyal to the group and some not coming back. Mental health professionals, young men, different professionals aged mostly 25-40, but also parents of group members. Not rarely, there were members that showed up without prior notice, or group members that would bring in a friend. They were always welcomed, extra chairs were always available. Since the beginning, the setting was loyal to the basic fundamental rule, that of free association, encouraging members to express all that would come to their mind in the ‘here and now’, giving space to all possible sensations, images, reflections and dreams. This rule required infinite reminders from the team. Being an open group with new members almost each time, the team was repeatedly faced with the new comers’ question ‘what is the topic of this gathering?’. The team’s persistence paid off, and a group analytic setting was finally established, each session at a time. The community members were finally ‘onboard’. The team’s goal has been to facilitate a process aiming the introduction of group psychotherapy for the community, for a population who has always relied only to the family group as the trusted one. Taboos and secrets are kept locked into the family circle, while shame was installed as the controlling instrument of one’s life. Freedom was a word, which started to be elaborated after 1990’s, yet holding an exotic meaning which would put people in trouble also in now days. Thus, the team’s wish is to offer as de Maré suggests … a transformative process that converts what does not make sense into understanding and meaning, because learning to dialogue is a difficult process for the group, similar to the task of acquiring a new language (de Maré et al., 1991). Our open community group has its own challenges, fairly representing the struggles of the society it is born in. Fragmented communication, symptom of the dysfunctional intimacy in communities as a result of trauma (cit. R. Harris, 2020) remains a continuous barrier towards dialogue. Group members’ defensiveness is often very accentuated as a result of the very nature of this open group, with new members almost each time, while the oldermembers long for intimacy. Intellectualization is often used as a mean to foster connection, although it is continuously challenged and addressed.

Supervision and team meetings
The small group of trainees, the team, has worked and continues to work hard to take care of the larger group, while learning something new each time, very often by trial and error. It has sometimes felt like a dangerous experiment, but somehow the excitement and the trust in the group outmatched the fear. Preserving our team’s cohesion was not an easy task, because every trainee had their own way of approaching a group experience. Supervision with the course director, was an essential process, sometimes, resembling more to salvation from any sort of perceived threats. Being interdependent on each-other, we could not afford loss, yet, we were more prone of reenactment of trauma by producing conflicts and responding to them. Pre and post team meetings helped in sharing sensations, associations, reflections, sometimes also to identify possible counter-transferences within the team, which could undermine the group’s process. While maintaining one’s personal style and own specific way of being in the group, the team members shared the same understanding on the whole team’s crucial role as a container group for the group members.

Adapting and responding to the needs of the community
The community group sessions went on monthly for a period of two years, with breaks during the summer months. September would come and the team would be back in the community Centre, on the last Wednesday of the month, 17.30 sharp, welcoming the old and new group members. After the September 2019 earthquake that hit Albania, the group’s ‘shelter’, the building was damaged and suddenly the space where to come together and talk about the frightening experience we had all shared was lost. Faced with the immense anxiety caused by the earthquake, there was need for an improvised, temporary solution. Another free space where to come together was found. There was an obvious need to come together more often than usual, the trauma was too vivid, the ground was still shaking every day and night. Those ‘special’ weekly group sessions organized as a response to the earthquake, somehow solidified the grounds of our group, paradoxically while the real ground was continuously shaking, scaring us all to death. The unforeseen events were not over and while still trying to recover from the earthquake, the COVID crisis knocked at the door. The shaking and cracked buildings that sheltered people were to become the obligatory refuge during a forced quarantine. Where was life safer? Outdoors risking to get infected or inside a cracked building and shaking foundations? Challenged but also motivated, the team decided to start running the group online. Technology did wonders, people joined the online group and were thankful for having restarted. To sum up… trust in the group Endeavors are not always meant to work, but this one seems to be working so far. Although we were backed up with ongoing supervision, it has always felt adventurous and exciting. Maybe the courage, persistence, sense of adventure of the team may have been key to what has been created. The team chose to trust the group, aware that the thirst for trust was enormous. And building trust in a traumatized society where no-one trusts anyone is quite a challenge. Maybe, this process helped us to trust each-other in a different way. As mentioned earlier, this group experience was created out of our desire and need to survive our growing experience as organization founders and trainees. While sitting in the community group for three years, we have learned the language of human connection. Maybe this is the reason why we chose to trust the group. It was our unconscious need to repair from trauma and recreate ourselves in a Winniottian way (Winnicott, 1971). This makes our community group quite unique. One could also think that these characteristics have inspired and motivated the group participants as well. This would give an answer to why they come and sit in the group again and again, month after month, bringing friends and embracing an increasing sense of belonging in an open group, with new members almost every time. It was when the oldest group members started showing less and less anxiety whenever new members joined, that the team felt the degree of the accomplishment of what has been created with love, creativity and trust in the group. The Albanian team is testimony that the development of community experiential groups growing out of the fundamental principles of therapeutic community models, especially in traumatized societies like ours, is possible.

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