Group therapy
Women ask for therapy circle -- and get it

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

IQALUIT (Feb 15/99) - For many women, being a part of a healing circle gives them something they can't get anywhere else -- the chance to speak uninterrupted about their own feelings, free from the threat of violence in any form.

"We've had women cry because it's so powerful. They've never had that before," said Katherine Richard, a staff mentor and trainer at Qimaavik, the Baffin's regional women's shelter, who helped get the Iqaluit-based therapeutic gathering off the ground.

Dubbed simply as the women's healing circle, the 90-minute, weekly group session was formed when women staying at the shelter and women living in the community expressed the interest for access to more extensive therapy.

"It allowed them to be with a group of people and they could get additional support. There's no violence, no yelling, no name-calling, no sitting in judgment. It's the one place where she has total power," said Richard.

The long-time healer noted that it was absolutely crucial to set a series of ground rules at the onset of each week so that participants listened to and respected one another. She explained that it was of particular importance to caution the women to protect themselves during the circle.

"The rules of the circle are discussed and how talking about another woman's story could literally cause her to be assaulted or maybe her death. What you hear here, stays here, but we remind women that that is not always honoured," said Richard, who added that women were encouraged to attend one-on-one counselling if they were not prepared for the possibility that others may learn their stories.

Following the formation of the circle and the lighting of the candle that represents light or healing, a prayer opens the gathering and the facilitator offers a teaching story that the women are encouraged to respond to. The rules of the circle are then discussed and a stone is passed around the room.

"Whoever is holding the stone speaks, and no one else speaks. When you let go of the stone, you pass it on to the next person," explained Richard.

She said it was mandatory for women to stay for the duration of the circle so that all the participants received the same level of support. She also stressed that it was necessary not to take on the weight of other women's issues.

"Nobody has to own what's being said or be responsible for it. They're encouraged to let it go and they're getting very good at that."

Once everyone has had the chance to speak, and women only speak if they choose to do so, the facilitator leads a closing relaxation exercise and then the women end the circle with coffee.

Richard said the program has succeeded where so many others had failed for a number of reasons. It was formed at the request of women looking to heal from various traumas. The sessions are free, include free child-care and are inclusive of all women.

"The welcome in the circle is very genuine. We have married women, single women, heterosexual women, lesbian women, any kind of woman that feels she wants to do some work on herself and it's at her own speed."