One man at a time

Jimblog1How come all my clients are men? I’m not sure, and that’s OK, it’s not a problem …

I enjoy working with men. But when someone hears this and asks me about what happens in ‘man-to-man’ therapy, I find it hard to say. One reason is this: men are not men. I mean, who exactly are we talking about when we say ‘men’? I’m a man, so don’t call me ‘men’. Am I a definable or categorisable man, a so-called type? Have you ever called someone a ‘typical man’? I suppose we all think we know a few.

I woke up one morning recently and realised I’d been studying men, in one way or another, all my conscious life. Let’s say my father’s physical and emotional distance had something to do with that keen interest. But more significantly I grew up in the ’60s as the roles of women and men were being radically questioned and debunked, and I was confused about what kind of man I would or could become.

Every man studies men, one way or another. With fear and desire, with wonder and bewilderment, men watch each other very closely indeed.

Here’s the thing: I’ve done counselling and therapy with hundreds of men of all ages in the last twenty-five years or so; I’ve read dozens of books about men and masculinities; I’ve been a member of men’s groups and led several groups myself, and I’ve run courses and workshops for and about men; I’ve had journal articles published on ‘The Bloke in Therapy’ and ‘Men at Midlife’ and so on – and the fact is I don’t think there is a big story or a grand narrative to tell about men. There are many kinds of men and there are no kinds of men. And yet all the while we go around telling stories about ‘men’. We try to figure them out.

Men are as queer as anything. Of course they are! We find manifold examples in all cultures in all eras. Men love men in all kinds of ways. Men like to play with gender styles and sexual roles, from boyhood onwards. Portraying manliness is always a kind of experiment because we’re not completely sure what a man is. Games of disguise and revelation that subvert traditions of maleness and femaleness are fascinating to men. And – most importantly – men are as straight as anything too. Absolutely straight, conventional and unquestioning. Of course they are!

We’re full of feeling, us men, even when we’re full of crap, and that’s a hell of a feeling.

I’ve met a lot of men who turn away from exploring what it means to be a man. I get on fine with them in therapy, though I’m baffled by their incuriosity. Ideas about ‘toxic masculinity’, for example, mean almost nothing to them. For this blandly self-assured man, any enquiry into how he derived his performance of masculinity is of little or no interest – which makes even him even more interesting to me.

Perhaps we simply want to be free to be who we are. But what’s the context for that freedom? If the society I live in tolerates only narrow, exclusive definitions of masculinity, then although I’m certain about what is masculine I am restricted as a man. If my society accepts wide, multiple definitions of masculinity, then I’m uncertain about what is masculine and I am liberated as a man.

If there’s one thing I can say about ‘man-to-man’ therapy that could apply to almost all my work with men, it would be about how a man reveals his emotional wounds to another man without being pitied, judged or dishonoured. It’s part of what’s called, simply enough, ‘men’s work’. Not everyone understands the healing effect of this. But if you’ve done it, you get it.

Men’s muscle power, physical skill and hard graft make all our lives possible. At the same time we know all kinds of men feel deep emotional pain. What happens to men’s misery and grief? Many seem to suffer alone in armoured silence. I see this in therapy. Men come in and at some point the way we talk and relate helps them to take off the armour and speak of its terrible origin. I’ve done that in my own therapy of course. When men accept they are grievously wounded, and trust themselves to tell the whole shameful story, then they can embrace that wound and take good care of it, and manfully so. The mythologist Michael Meade says the way to guarantee that a man will continue to wound others is to keep him ignorant of his own wounds. A man who doesn’t know he is wounded can’t see that others are wounded. That’s where so much trouble starts.

 

Jim recommends …

Men and the Water of Life by Michael Meade (1993)

 

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Walking with distress

Portrait_002Moving forward under our own steam on two legs is, in itself, an expressive thing. Look around as you move through the city or the country and you will see people doing it – using their bodies and expressing something about their actions, their direction – the stroller ambling along, the I’m late, I’m late followed by, or bumping into, the smart phone addict head down in a separate world, still checking social media on the way from one meeting to the next. But what’s happening with the inner voice? What past directions and journeys are being played in the inner self?

When I take people for a walk-and-talk session they are curious about how it might work. They are often stuck in life, distressed with it or perhaps bereaved. Inner symbols reveal as you walk: things we pass trigger memories, and the pace and openness of not being trapped within four walls help some very difficult thoughts to make their way out of the unconscious into the conscious realm. And, of course, nature and the environment makes itself very much part of the work. This might make sense as to why therapists so often use tree imagery on their websites. Sometimes a rabbit really is a symbol – vitality and rebirth are never far when you take therapy for a walk …

Read on for some of my free verse triggered by the walking therapy I offer.

Pace: on walking with distress

Walking, walking, walking. Pacing things through. We are in the world right now.

Talking, listening, watching. Right at the very edge of life. ‘I remember how my father laughed at me as we drove down the hill. I was about to shit my pants and he was laughing, crying with pleasure … at my distress.’

Concrete, gravel, turf, tarmac, the water at our side. ‘If you add the negative moments up and you add the neutral and the positive, you don’t get what you expect.’

Walking, marching, ambling, pausing, listening, watching. ‘The whole marriage is lost.’ Loving and losing, kissing and hating. Steps pass by as seconds rotate in time. [Again] ‘Were more of them good than bad?’

A courting couple in the back of a car cuts like a knife. Pace, control and then, then, there is just loss. ‘An intense toothache. Everyone knows toothache. Through the whole body, the mind, to quiddity.’

Walking, walking, walking, talking, talking, talking, listening, listening, listening. ‘We finally managed to break down the door but he was already dead, squashed against the back of it.’

If we looked over the bridge once, what would happen? Twice? Would a third time make the pain greater or lessen it? ‘Would you jump?’ How much would I remember of my story?

Moving, moving, now always moving. ‘It helps with the pain; it stops that claustrophobic tightness in my head.’ ‘Are these things in your head or are they in your body?’ The sensation of the cradle rocking, the soft, soft murmuring song before I fell asleep.

Pain, pain, pain, stabbing at the pith. Not needing to let go today, not quite rocked, not stepping away just yet. Step, mirror, step, mirror, step, walking, talking, listening, ‘expressing?’.

What does the body say? ‘A question? What does the body say?’ ‘Feel?’ ‘Say!’ ‘Oh look, a rabbit! Lots of them.’ ‘And the body?’ [Slowly] ‘L-o-o-k, t-h-e-r-e-’s a r-a-b-b-i-t-?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes.’

Walking, walking, walking, talking, talking, talking, listening, hearing, feeling, hearing?
‘Yes.’ Feeling? ‘Oh, look, another rabbit!’

Duncan recommends …

Taking therapy beyond the four walls of the consulting room out into the real world and seeing what happens for you. NB this idea makes many therapists anxious about controlling the situation and the space – but they can get help with that.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The unspeakable

Portrait_002‘A Jew killed my baby.’

The words had rushed out and now lay like mustard gas in a trench, ready to choke either of us if we breathed. There was an undoubted toxic nature to what was said about the loss of a child but it felt equally toxic that the allegation, from nowhere, was that a Jew had committed the act.

Throughout my lifetime society has become increasingly uncertain about how it can deal with challenging words and phrases – perhaps even more than challenging situations.

Growing up in the centre of a major city, ethnic strife had been around me. I would even witness race riots and disturbance up close and personal. But my junior school was a safe, close community sort of school.

The first girl I remember kissing – I was 5 – was a Jehovah’s Witness; she mixed well with the Methodist children, Catholic children and Jewish children – although not everyone came to assembly and sang the hymns. Hashtag Morning has broken

‘I wrote a poem.’

I’m momentarily stunned by his voice breaking into my distant memories. In my teens, I had dated a Jewish girl for more than a year. My mind was away again with those thoughts … being at Jewish New Year; playing an extraordinary board game full of Jewish expressions I hardly understood. And in the time we dated, I don’t remember her ever mentioning that she received any anti-Semitic insults.

‘I wanted to read it to you. I want someone to hear it – out loud,’ he says. I’m motionless, perhaps frozen. Why am I so worried? Is it because it might be aimed negatively at a Jewish person? This young man is in pain; I need to listen to him.

Gently I motion that I am ready to hear him. ‘Okay,’ I say. I am listening, but I know I’m doing the equivalent of looking through my fingers at the scary film on the screen.

Within the bitch lies my beggar, the unseen, unheard one I love …’

And I do listen. And it is upsetting to hear the story of how this young man who, while having been unworldly, felt ready to make a choice because of the pregnancy his sperm had jointly created. He felt it right and responsible to take on the role of father. This young man was ready to stand by his partner, to make a relationship that was secure enough and loving enough for a family to be created. This young man was ready to take the step that many are never able to: to devote his energy, his action, for the good of a child, to love the son or daughter, to support and grow together with the mother. His poem drew me close to tears as he sobbed the words. The anger at the Jewish woman, the ‘bitch’ in his poem was a pale disguise for the distraught position every man can feel when a pregnancy is terminated against his own wishes.

I’m no longer worried about the shock of a ‘Jewish baby killer’. The sheer wretched desolation of a man in his mid-40s telling me of the loss he had experienced 27 years earlier is the new unspeakable. In front of me, through the tears and months of piecing together the fragments of story, the 18-year-old’s tale has finally been told.

‘I’ve never shared those words, never spoken them out loud,’ he seems to sigh from deep within his psyche.

The doleful look is frozen on the teenager’s face but I am already sat once again with the mid-40s singleton.

The visiting of prostitutes, the mistrust of partners and the generalising of that trait, ultimately, the tragic inability to connect – even within the successful relationships, even with the kind women – appears to have a place. The tale of this bachelor finally has a narrative. This has been the direction, the goal of which the therapy dyad has sought. But there is an undoubted emptiness at this temporary destination and there are new unspeakables.

He had been so close to everything that society vaunts, pumps out, demands that men and women achieve – the goals of life: a partner, a lover, a child who creates of a couple a family. The child never born, the siblings never created. There is an endless line of loss, thoughts and images that the therapy chair receives.

What he feels, I have just felt, but what he is now thinking remains a mystery that the clock controls.

As the seconds tick, we both know it will not lend us enough time today.

Duncan suggests …

… consulting Brook’s website page ‘Abortion: Advice for men’

www.brook.org.uk

 

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.