In praise of being eaten

3monkeyGlennI recall, during my initial psychotherapy training at the Whittington Hospital in North London, the day I had to choose a supervisor. My tutor listed several candidates. He read out their names, many of them sounding exotic to me. He gave us little detail unless a group member enquired further. One name, in particular, struck me …

‘What about her?’ I asked.

He gave me an impish smile, laughed and cautioned: ‘She’ll eat you for breakfast!’

Something inside me said: ‘That’s the one!’ I didn’t know why, except I knew I didn’t want someone who wasn’t able to eat me. I wanted a supervisor who’d take no prisoners; I didn’t want to be spared. I thought only giants eat people for breakfast and, if there are giants, I want one as a supervisor.

I arrived for my first supervision session and pressed the doorbell of a beautifully coloured glass entrance to a large Victorian house. Only then, waiting for an answer, did I think: ‘What if she’s an ogre?!’ The door opened and a tiny woman revealed herself. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment; I thought, ‘She’s not a giant.’

‘Oh God, you’re so young!’ she said. It was no compliment. Wow! I was being eaten even before I’d entered her house. I was both breakfast and delivery man. Her greeting had taken me by surprise. I stood rooted to the doormat not knowing how to respond.

‘Come in.’ It sounded more like an instruction than an invitation. Her tone was short; I hoped it was just her accent. Inside her consulting room we sat opposite each other. I stroked the hair on my chin. Goatees were fashionable at the time and I’d hoped it’d make me look a little older. It hadn’t worked; she’d seen straight through me. Now my stroking felt more like self-soothing. I imagined she was sizing up both me and her appetite at the same time. My tutor had warned me.

The memory of a green lizard I’d once seen in a glass tank flashed before my mind’s eye. Next to the lizard lay two flesh-pink, blind baby mice huddled together on a tea-plate, their short breaths in unison anticipating their fate. At the time, this scene unsettled me. Now, however, the image is empty of drama and emotional charge; with the clarity of calmness I see only two mice, a lizard and its lunch.

‘Did you notice you scanned me at the door?’ Her question woke me from my daydream, bringing me abruptly back into the room. I was more curious about the softness of her voice than her question. Then it struck me that I didn’t understand the question.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘You very quickly looked me up and down; you were scanning me. It’s good, it’s a good skill for a psychotherapist.’

Something lifted from my chest; with this she was saying: ‘I will work with you.’ I let out a deep breath as this began to sink in. At the time I couldn’t have predicted this would be the start of a long and rewarding collaboration.

I later discovered that supervisees can be eaten more than once. Perhaps the most memorable occasion came in our second year. I’d inadvertently caused something of a dilemma in an organisation where I was working, and one that my supervisor had ties with. We’d talked it through, I felt relieved; my supervisor would support me. At the end of the session, as I stepped outside she said, ‘I hate you, goodbye.’ With that the door closed and I stood glued to the doormat unable to leave or re-enter. Wow, what congruence! It turns out that two of my most valuable supervision experiences took place while standing on a doormat.

I imagined I was a cat that’d been put out for leaving an unwanted gift on the carpet. I told myself: ‘It’ll be okay, it is okay’; no one gets rid of a cat when it leaves you an unwelcome present, do they? I knew my supervisor well enough to know she’d meant what she’d said, and at the same time something in me was able to trust.

Walking to the underground I began to conceptualise her intervention. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would say that for fifty minutes you love your client and at the end of the session you hate them by showing them the door. I was experiencing object constancy with a powerful benevolent other. Hate needn’t kill off a relationship. With this insight I could tell something important inside me was knitting together.

I learned three invaluable lessons: first, being eaten by a giant can make you bigger not smaller; second, to become a giant you must dine with giants; and third, afterwards you have to shit it all out.

Glenn cautions …

Not all those who would eat you are benevolent. You can tell a giant from someone who thinks they’re a giant; they’ve not learned the third lesson, hence the odour of much that comes out of their mouth.

 

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