Space to Be Different: Ksenija Kadic and Fluidity of Self
We spoke to writer, creative and mental health practitioner Ksenija Kadic about her professional work, her philosophy ‘Fluidity of Self’ and about her past experiences as a refugee.
The Balkans has a complex history with identity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the birthplace of the two schools under one roof phenomenon, where children learn the same history through completely different lenses in accordance with their ethnic identities. The divide is sharply brought into focus by the fences running through the playgrounds.
Following the breakdown of former Yugoslavia,
ethnonationalism tore through the territory, causing a heavy societal divide amongst the diverse peoples living there. It has now been nearly thirty years since Ksenija Kadic fled her home in Mostar.
She currently practices a non-clinical approach to mental health, emphasising treatment routes through self-discovery and collaborative ways of healing. Whilst principally based within the Recovery College in Camden, she also works with several third-sector organisations. In addition to this, she runs creative workshops and is even writing a book. In the last few years, Kadic has been honing in on one of her most personal projects to date, the establishment and exploration of her healing philosophy ‘Fluidity of Self’. This came to fruition when she began processing her experiences as a refugee in relation to the experiences of the people she treats in her work.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and the core belief systems behind your work?
I’ve been working within the mental health sector since 2007 and the reason I went into that work was due to survival mode. I had a daughter quite young. I was 21 when I had her. It was partly a significant time for me because I came here as a refugee. I needed a sense of belonging and home, so I wanted to start my family young which is unusual- I don’t know if that still would’ve been the case if I had stayed back home but that journey meant for me that.
Only later did I start to think about what I wanted to do in terms of my life. Even for an ordinary person you don’t know what you’re going to do when you’re young, but when I used to be a child, I would always play the teacher role with my friends, and now I have a teaching role within the mental health system.
I started to think more seriously about going into psychology at university because my mother back home was a psychologist.
The mental health field has changed a lot since I started. At the beginning of my career, there were still old ways of working within the services. People were still seen more like patients and you were doing things for them and trying to organise their lives, whereas now there is more of a sense of co-production and collaboration within mental health. This is where I am at the moment. I also work in various third-sector places. Significant to my development was working with Hearing Voices Project with Mind in Camden. This supports people who hear voices and who experience unusual beliefs, paranoia etc and I started the first self-support group My Beliefs.
I called it My Beliefs because I come from the idea that we all have different belief systems. Usually, within the mental health field, paranoia is considered to be a result of certain beliefs [that lead to an incompatibility with functioning in mainstream society], but if you really unpick it, we all have these internal lenses. Sometimes they can enable us and sometimes they can act like a barrier… it depends at which points we are at in our lives.
My approach to mental health is informed by my own experiences. It enables people to do a self-discovery of who they are. There are different lenses to mental health and depending on what your experiences is it will be your lens, I wouldn’t say one is better than the other -- it’s just different.
Funnily enough, I went to Serbia [also part of former Yugoslavia] on a project with Healthcare England for a month-long exchange programme looking at how different countries are dealing with mental health care. The programme was examining service use involvement, looking at how people can actively be involved in their health.
It must have been interesting going back after all of that time.
Yeah, it was like returning 20 years later in a completely different role. From previously escaping to now coming back.
Have your previous experiences as a refugee informed your career and life path in any way?
I initially didn’t think about it in a linear way as in “because I am X I am going to do Y” it doesn’t work like that. It’s more kind of visceral.
Within the field, I felt more orientated towards recovery-centred approaches and other non-clinical approaches. My idea of Fluidity of Self is looking at the importance of being able to hold many or multiple views of self and of your experiences, and not necessarily saying “This is the right one or this is the wrong one” -- even though your initial pull is to that. I battled with this myself, but I know the importance to be able to hold these multiple ways of looking at things and of being, which is sometimes really challenging. I went into mental health initially to try and better my life. It was initially ‘get a degree and get a job’: but what transpired was this pull to unpick that journey I went through. It couldn’t be ignored. I placed myself in this nonclinical way of looking at mental health and from there I went onto that personal inner-search.
Before I went on this journey, I was working closely with people who hear voices and have paranoia. When you give the label of schizophrenia or bipolar, some may find it comforting… it puts a name to your experience that people will recognise. However, some people find it stigmatising… and for me, that was interesting because when I work with people with these extremes, when you unpick the label, the experience is very much what I also experienced.
A lot of them struggle with loneliness, feeling they are different, feeling they are less accepted, and non-compliant with the norm, through societal stigma or from their internal belief systems causing self-stigma. It’s important to say that it’s not always the outside stigma we are talking about, we often take our experiences and internalise them leading to self-stigmatisation. The importance of a self-introspection journey is to really unpick that and look at it and see what is there and why.
When I started to unpick this personally, I found that the conflict that was outside, that wasn’t in my control, the war and the atrocities that happened -- I had no choice in that. A lot of the people I speak to also had no choice when they experienced this on-set of mental health difficulties. It felt very much like a parallel. Of course, it’s not exactly the same, but there are parallels to it.
The outside landscape becomes the inner landscape as a conflict within you- you’re thinking 'I have to choose who I am'. Society puts this on you. Back home, the war meant you either belong to the ‘Muslim’ side, the ‘Croat’ side or the ‘Serb’ side, and therefore, you have protection from that side. If you are in between or even both -- you had to pick a side. This was the only way to guarantee protection. I internalised these polarising viewpoints and became torn. The outer conflict became an inner conflict.
The Birth of Fluidity of Self
Ksenija first presented the idea of Fluidity of Self at a conference in Boston. Though at the time it was incredibly well received, this was only the beginning.
The basis of her philosophy is an exploration of six key principles which Ksenija says can be followed chronologically like ‘a mini journey’ or ‘mixed up’. They are as follows:
Ksenija and her long-term collaborator gained an art residency in London, where they intended to recreate a play around the idea of Fluidity of Self. However, what came to pass was a much longer, more abstract process. Instead of creating a physical performance, they began an elongated “process of play”; utilising boxes to create imaginary scenarios and thought-process exercises.
The boxes represented ‘Fixedness’, Fluidity’ and ‘Other’. Participants joined the pair and interacted with these boxes, exploring these categories through different themes.
A watershed moment for Ksenija during this period was when she stumbled across the ‘box of past’. They had begun that day by playing with the categories of Past, Present and Future, each representing Fixed, Fluid and Other respectively. “I was playing with the Past box and I could not open it. I froze. I was getting panic attacks. I just simply couldn’t do it”. With the warmth understanding and support of her collaborator, Ksenija eventually opened the box... “I could see the letters, past pictures”
“Now when I reflect on it, I see why this was, it was to do with my journey.”
When Ksenija left Mostar, the only way she could contact her family was via letter, so they held on to pictures of each other. Instant communication was simply not possible then as it is today. Ksenija became visibly emotional recalling this. I tried to comfort her, commending her on the immense positivity she has funnelled into her throughout life, despite all of this. However, she forcefully contended: “I was always lively and vivacious... I have always had a deep curiosity for life… but I wouldn’t say I’m a super positive person… I see myself more as realistic. To tell our journeys it’s important to be in touch, to acknowledge the heartache, the barriers, the complexities of our emotions.”
“If you do not look within the madness, you are placating your experience and not being congruent or attentive with who you are. This is part of my journey. Maybe if there is any positivity it would be humour. I think always trying to have a joke and laugh is very important. I try to be this way with the people I work with, rather than taking everything seriously [not to say their situations are not serious].. but having a lightness or jokiness with them like “Oh that’s what your imaginary friend says.. so what did he say to you”. This way we can explore what that part of them is saying.. being curious rather than ignoring it or vilifying it.”
Ksenija holds that if we don’t approach these matters, or speak about them too seriously, this is when things become scary, and can potentially further ostracise people.
“If you take it lightly then, there is more room for that person or more room for someone like myself who is not always welcomed by society. I do not feel unwelcome now but back in that time when I first arrived, I felt immense pressure to fit in and I poured so much energy into assimilation. I would say this is similar for people with mental health challenges. They have to subdue themselves to fit in.
“Welcoming differences and simply allowing that way of being is really important. When you see somebody that’s different or ‘odd’ in a way, instead of being like “Oh my god this is serious” you can laugh about it in a jokey way and that person appreciates it more because there's an immediate connection when you do that.”
On that note, Fluidity of Self, as I understand it, is largely about accepting internal processes, how is it applied to external human interactions?
After the introspection, I did the process with another person, this is an important part of Fluidity of Self -- the collaborative part is key. You do the internal process by yourself but it is not universal. When the process is done together there is a relational feel, it will be your take on it—it will never be my take on it. It’s for you to define your internal landscape.
I guess this can build bridges of solidarity between other human beings. I ask this because we are living in increasingly divisive times. It feels as if a philosophy like Fluidity of Self could help to unite people.
After this introspective part. I stayed two years in this residency up to 2019, and then at the end of it the pandemic happened. I was going to take the third year to wrap it up during a career break and to see how to do exactly what you’re saying which is to bring it out. I thought I would go travelling, bring my boxes and see what happens- but these things never happen as you intend. The life journey again brought me back home, I was suddenly working from home from my hometown, back with my parents, sleeping on the sofa. For 8 months I was living like I was returning to my childhood.
It was really interesting because I had to pull those six principles and really understand them from the point of view of this new, but very familiar context. I did introspection for two years, but now in the third year in I had to apply it -- and I was doing this from back home with my parents in my hometown where everything happened.
I was actually blessed to have that opportunity again with my work, I was so happy. At the same time, you’re dealing with a whole other thing. In some funny way, England seemed like such a far-away place, I was back home as if nothing had happened, seeing my childhood friend. We were together all the time, visiting all of these places I had never been before because I left at seventeen. I never knew my country in adulthood. Within that time, just before the pandemic, I met Mirela. She has her own art centre in Gracanica.
During the pandemic, we really started to connect and see what would happen. Here, we coined the idea of ‘Space to be Different’ which goes with the philosophy of Fluidity of Self, and the importance of people having the space to be different, where you can explore safely in the presence of others. This is a way to build solidarity, through the relationships created and the process people go through together, liberating ourselves from these rigid ideas. We’ve done about five workshops now online and we want to bring it back home and do a participatory art session to allow people to tell their stories. This is our aim for next year.
Whilst Space To Be Different is more grounded in art and creativity, the Fluidity of Self principles had also previously been re-applied to Ksenija’s work in the mental health services. They formed the basis of wellness-centred programmes with Mind in Camden as well as a project between Mind and the Recovery project under a program titled ‘Time to Create’. But the philosophy has travelled even further ashore than London:
I did this Ted Talk on wellbeing with the UCL society, and from there I met a clinical psychologist from Hong Kong. She really liked my talk and we connected spontaneously. I am now collaborating with other psychologists specialising in mindfulness in Hong Kong, the Fluidity of Self principles are being applied to practical approaches to wellbeing in psychology.
The Hong Kong psychologists marvelled at the similarities between Fluidity of Self and Eastern philosophy—or Bruce Lee's work, which is like a hybrid philosophy. So, we tried to ground it in Bruce Lee. For me, it was amazing connectivity and synchronicity. In my hometown, Mostar, there is a statue of Bruce Lee. After the war, they were talking about reconciliation. We were trying to work out what statue would best represent peace between the east bank and west bank (Muslim side and Croat side respectively), and they were trying to bring out national heroes, but this caused tensions for obvious reasons. Then, somebody suggested Bruce Lee out of the blue. Because everybody in the 90s loved Bruce Lee, it was common ground and so Bruce Lee became our symbol.
So we based it on the character of Bruce Lee as if he was a psychologist. These six principles are tied in with that. We are now at the last stage of co-creating a self-taught course.
As well as the application of her philosophy in the world of medicine, Ksenija has also re-applied its essence to her creative side:
I am currently writing a fantasy novel about our cosmic selves. There is no spec of us that is not collective. This is why I use the analogy of a cosmic snake. If we imagine a snake's patterns, and us within that landscape and the snake is like our environment, we are moving on these patterns as we go along in our lives. We are not a static-self but are always changing our patterns. Like a snake changes its skin, so do we. We have this ability because we humans have always been movers and shakers and shifters. We have this idea sometimes that we have to be this static self so that people can rely on us. You can hold a label, like “Mother” e.t.c., but this isn’t everything. My label of being a refugee is in my landscape, it’s in one of those boxes but it’s not my present anymore - I am by status a British citizen, but if I go back in time the label is somewhere flowing within that experience.
Sometimes difficult things happen to us and we fixate on that. But the more we are fixed on it, the more it reinforces it. If we let go of the label, it is just in our experience. These events hold significance and are important to acknowledge, but they are not all of who we are. That’s why this idea of a cosmic self, where you can see yourself in a bigger way, within the broader context of nature.
Illustration of the Cosmic Snake by Martina Dolcimascolo