I am full of words that leave me hungry

I haven’t got a story, only a way of talking. This could be the start of a good story. But I’m fed up with stories.

It seems human beings have been story-tellers since the beginning of art and language. The telling and hearing of stories is all we do, all the time, in all kinds of ways. Stories are how we make sense of ourselves, how we relate to others, how we create and share meaning, over and over again. We are chronically, helplessly pathological story-tellers. Don’t we ever shut up?

Tell me something I don’t know but please don’t tell me another bloody story.

The universe hasn’t got a story, only a way of existing.

How many stories do you want? In journalism news items are called stories. Holy books are nothing but stories. Science is a story about what seems to be the case for now. A lie is a story about what’s not the case. A novel is a very long story, a joke a very short one. A blues song always tells a story. Telling you how my day went is a mundane story. My dream last night was a fantastical anti-story. Talking with a client in therapy is a story about therapeutic stories.

I wonder how it would be to drop all these stories and live without them. Could we live well in truth, beauty and goodness, and yet be utterly unstoried?

How we fill the dreadful void of our terrifying incomprehensibility with an infinite number of stories is the only story.

Because stories are everywhere and can take me anywhere, I could end up nowhere.

A trashy story, like junk food, delivers real pleasure – for a while. Another story can seem nutritious and turn out to be bad in some way, like a very healthy meal that fails to satiate. The type of story I most desire might not be doing me much good. People talk of being ‘addicted’ to crime dramas and ‘bingeing’ on box sets. Perhaps it’s possible to overdose on stories, fatally.

We’re freakishly clever apes with heads crammed with stories. We don’t know why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do with all this. How then can we not continuously storify our absurdly plotless existence? Who would we be if our lives were still and quiet and constantly untold?

An insect hasn’t got a story, only a way of … insecting?

Perhaps other animals are the answer because for them there are no questions. For other species there is no story and not even an absence of story – as far as we know.

Talking animals appear frequently in myths and legends. Do we yearn for them to tell us a story of who we are, a tale of what it means to be human, as if the stories we’ve been telling ourselves are not enough, as if it’s unbearable to be the only story-making creature?

A therapeutic thought experiment: imagine being someone who takes no story from the world and offers no story back to the world – and imagine that person as great company. What would be their character? What would animate their spirit? I imagine them as someone who had transmuted storylessness into a fullness of being that was unassailable. To have no need of stories would be a profound kind of freedom. To know stories and be unattached to any of them would be liberating. Therapy is a bit like this: it invites you to tell your story and undo it, to set yourself free from it.

Writing these notes I realise I would be hopelessly lost without any form of story at all – even the story of no-story-at-all gives me some direction, something to move towards or away from.

Stories invent us. When we’re not talking about our direct experience, we tell each other something about what we can’t see and don’t feel and don’t know, and we call it a story. Out of all that is happening or has ever happened or could happen in the world, we know almost nothing. The rest of it is imagined at every turn.

Everywhere you look, the world disappears from view.

What’s your story? There are millions of human beings just around the corner, living lives we can only wonder about. The story goes that you and I now are very precisely two of those other unknown millions. Our ordinary nosiness might evoke our compassionate curiosity about everyone else, but we will never know who they are. We stare blankly, chewing on the knowledge that human reality is inedible.

I am full of words that leave me hungry.

Therapy is storyland. All kinds of stories and fictions and dreams and fables are deposited there. Therapists, we might say, act as librarians for this phenomenal archive. As a therapist I can’t help but hear and tell loads of stories every day – I barely know what I forget and what I recall and what I make up. I could tell a story about all these hundreds of stories, and that might tell you something about therapy. But I’m not an obvious choice for the position of archivist.

Jim recommends …

Story-fasting: to spend a day without hearing or telling a story.

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

BACP and the ethics of self-deception

‘I remember my training supervisor asking me if I’d read Melanie Klein. I said I hadn’t …

‘… And she said, “Really, seriously? You’ve never read Klein!” I felt ashamed,’ Paola explains as her eyes inspect the rug.

‘Why didn’t you lie?’ I ask.

‘I couldn’t do that!’ Paola exclaims incredulously.

‘Why not? You could’ve said, “I’ve read Klein and wasn’t impressed”.’

Paola blurts out a laugh, ‘No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, therapists don’t lie … it’s unethical, it’s incongruent.’

‘Anything else?’ I ask.

As though scanning the rug for an answer Paola adds, ‘I might’ve got caught.’ We simultaneously let out a laugh.

‘Ah, so you don’t think you’re a good enough liar?’ I query as impishly as I can.

‘No, it actually didn’t occur to me to lie; as I said, “Therapists don’t lie”.’

‘But that’s not true,’ I object.

‘How so?’

‘Well, part of our training – of having extensive therapy – involves looking at the beliefs we’re brought up with. Some are lies we’re told that we’ve come to believe, and some are lies we’ve told ourselves in order to believe. A large part of becoming a psychotherapist is recognising self-deception and then seeing if we can bear to live with it and without it.

‘Parents teach their children to lie – they tell them they shouldn’t, but even that’s a lie. Children have to learn to recognise their parents’ lies; they discover their parents’ hypocrisy and in time appreciate it for what it is. It’s the child’s task to decode “You shouldn’t lie” as “Be a good liar, and don’t get caught”.’

‘Hm, that’s true. But surely lying’s unethical,’ Paola insists.

‘What does your Ethical Framework say about lying?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure, but it does talk about honesty.’

‘I don’t know either – I’m not with BACP, although I don’t recall any code of ethics I’ve ever read saying anything about lying. Honesty is a bit more tricky.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, you were honest when you gave your reasons for not lying – it didn’t mean you weren’t lying. You’ve made your reasons, your beliefs fit the narrative of how you think therapists should be.’

‘Okay so I was worried about getting caught, but lying’s not congruent.’

‘As well as feeling shame, did you feel anything else?’

‘Well yes – I was really angry.’

‘So what else could you have done with your anger?’

‘I couldn’t’ve challenged her, she had power over me: she was writing my Supervisor’s Report.’

‘Hm, yeah you were in a vulnerable position.’

‘It would’ve felt good though – challenging her directly I mean,’ Paola licks her lips as though she could taste it.

‘Well, giving yourself permission to lie is empowering. The more permission you give yourself, the more likely you’d feel able to challenge her directly,’ I suggest.

‘I can see that, but I’m just not comfortable: therapists should be moral.’

‘Even when morality is born out of fear and lies?’

‘Hm, you’re not letting me off the hook,’ Paola smiles.

‘It’s your hook.’

Her smile disappears.

‘I’m advocating the rarest of lies – the lie you didn’t tell: the intentional one. Intentional lies take awareness, calculation and skill. The lie you told is very common: the one where you lie to yourself and then present it as truth or honesty. This type of lying has little or no awareness.’

‘Okay, I acknowledge I was deceiving myself. I should do better, but surely that’s the point; I mean, as therapists aren’t we meant to do better?’

‘Are we? Going back to BACP, did you know they accredit therapists who’ve had no personal therapy at all?’

‘Yes I did, and of course it’s absurd, but does that make them unethical or immoral?’

‘Maybe. But I agree, BACP justify an absurd position; it’d be like learning to dive with someone who’s never dived before.’

‘Sure I get that: I’m a diver.’

‘So you know it’d be crazy to go into the depths with someone who’s not spent a large amount of time there. You’d want a Dive Master; you wouldn’t trust someone who says, “I’ve read a lot of books on diving, but I’ve never actually done it”, or “I’ve been a number of times, I’m a confident swimmer, and, oh yeah, I’m quite good at holding my breath under water”.’

Paola beams with recognition, ‘Wow, I’d never thought about it like that. Yes to get the most from therapy you want a therapist who’s experienced full immersion in a therapeutic relationship, someone who knows how to explore relational depth and be able to get you both back safely to the surface. Being able to float on the surface is not good enough.’

‘Exactly. BACP say they promote ethics and professional standards but actually they’ve devalued them. I hope they’re lying to themselves because if not, well, then they’ve got serious problems.’

‘Hm,’ Paola murmurs.

‘What?’

‘They are the hypocritical parent,’ she replies.

‘Yes … “The eye cannot see itself”,’ I add.

Glenn quotes:

‘Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The virgin executive

DESHeadshotBS-1I know I’ve left it late in the session – but I’ve got to start working on this dream with you …

Patient:      … it’s definitely part of the sequence.

Therapist:  We can always make a start. It’s important to capture the energy while it’s fresher; we can come back to it then.

[The therapist’s eyes close to listen.]

P:               I walk into this huge organic building. It’s like it’s made of pushed-up earth but it towers above me – not like a skyscraper – although it’s tall. I get this strange essence that it is alive. It has a heavy ring towards the top – like some form of viewing platform or an escape route. Before I enter the building I’m in a clearing. I don’t know if it’s some sort of jungle that I’ve walked through? Tall, overpowering grasses sway in the perfect temperature.

T:               Perfect temperature?

P:               Yeah, sunny but not hot; cool, not cold. Like those wonderful spring days when the world hints at what summer will bring. That first day when you slip off your winter clothes. You feel the world on your skin after all that insulation.

T:               Le Sacre du printemps?

P:               Sacred spring?

T:               Yes.

P:               There’s an air of real danger outside. I can hear an old woman’s voice that carries across the clearing. She is singing a song I know. I can’t sing it though; I know that I mustn’t sing the words.

T:               What might happen if you did?

P:               I don’t know … but, as always, there’s something very dangerous about stepping into the building. I can see the vestibule is open. It’s not very big. I’m a bit concerned I could get stuck if I start to walk in. It’s like that claustrophobic feeling I had when I went caving as a teenager. Then I realise something bad will only happen if I step in knowing the words. I try not to hear the song; I cover my ears. I try not to sing the words in my head. I know the song foretells the future and the future that waits in the building could change my life in big ways. My heart’s beating really heavily; I feel drenched in sweat. I’m just about to turn back as a group of young women flock around me and push me through the entranceway. The instant I’m inside the building, the women fall to the floor.

[There is a long silence. The therapist doesn’t move. The sound of water being gulped and swallowed invades the space.]

T:               Are the women dressed or naked this time?

P:               Bound in cheesecloth. Full-length dresses. Like they’re in some sort of shroud. I run my hand over one of them expecting warmth, a subtle smoothness beneath the material, but I realise she’s made of sand or perhaps salt. I can’t swallow.

[A glass chinks just before the gulping sound enters the room again.]

P:               I look round the white inner space. All the people have divided into two separate groups.

T:               Are they doing anything? Saying anything?

P:               They form up a procession that leads out of the space. They pass some sort of holy metal object or relic along the line and I’m forced to follow it right out of the building.

T:               Atmosphere?

P:               It’s incredibly powerful … spiritual. I’m laid to the ground by the procession. I feel very free. When I look up there is a sage woman looking at me. She rests her hands on my head and then, with an opening of hands, I’m thrown high into the air, floating on a passage of energy.

T:               Any other signs or symbols from the dream series?

P:               Just those obvious recurring ones …

[The patient pauses.]

P:               When I look down the young women have begun to draw circles on the ground. I can see one particular fire-haired woman. She gets lost in the action and is suddenly abandoned in the main circle.

T:               Do you know what’s about to happen at that point when you’re in the dream?

P:               I do. I know exactly what’s going to happen next. But I wake up before she starts to dance.

T:               You want to see it?

P:               No, I don’t want to see her die this time.

T:               Not even for the elements – the soil, the flame, the drops of water or the breeze?

P:               No, not to appease the gods. It’s changing. For once, in the dream, I realise I want my life. I don’t want to be reborn a young woman, no renaissance life. I want to be anima rising. To use my life.

[Her eyes move towards the clock. He smiles at her warmly.]

T:               Well, the outline’s told. I think we can pick up on it next session. Perhaps we can reflect on the sand/salt women and the change to the sacrificial dance?

Duncan suggests …

Reading Man and His Symbols by C G Jung, since knowing when things are a sign and when they are a symbol of something else is one of the most important things we can learn.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

 

Much love, your brother …

Portrait_002My younger sibling would be turning 50 this year. I wonder what would have been explored in the last half century had that sibling survived?

I think of what pleasures and pains would have been created if I had always had the youngster beneath me in the family. I wonder how my own life experience would have been altered by being the big brother?

As a four year-old, my rather large bedroom in the eaves of the house I grew up in was ready to be divided for the coming of the newest member of our household. I clearly remember how my parents began to manipulate my thinking in preparation for the commencement of the building works. It was ‘going to be fun’ having a smaller room. I’d ‘get to choose my own bedspread’ – I’d even be allowed one that represented the cockpit of a racing car, if I’d ‘just give up [my] protests, see sense and take a positive view’. Of course, being four, I didn’t really understand what was going on and I certainly didn’t understand why my older sister was getting to keep a room of her own with all of her stuff and things in it. There would be no consequence of reduced space for her. I was very resistant and, although I say it myself, rightly so!

Skip forward a few months and a different message was circulating in my life. Unseen, but not unfelt by me, my mother had lost the baby that was due in the family. Suddenly my peace was being shattered by another direct assault on my space: apparently there was someone already in existence who might be coming to share my room. The audacity! An adopted child – whatever that meant. We were now expecting a cuckoo!

As it happens, the cuckoo-child never arrived. But as time followed on I was next introduced to the idea of emigration to Australia, where we would all ‘get new lives’.

The changes seemed to mount and I really didn’t like all of this unsettled social soup that we were living in. Most noticeably, my mother’s health began to deteriorate – her body quietly rejecting something. Loss in her was transformed into chronic painful illness. By the time a full seven years had passed from the loss of the child we were finally moving – but it wasn’t across the globe. Leading up to this move, the basement of our house, which my ‘aunt’ lived in, was converted into a self-contained flat. A new bathroom was created on the ground floor, and then the three upper floors that had been my family home were split  to form yet more self-contained properties. My ‘aunt’, a casualty of this change, moved out. It was a personal loss.

On the day before the morning I started secondary school we moved to a small house away from my friends. It seemed that for seven years one loss became another. Loss transformed until it couldn’t be clearly seen what was actually missing anymore.

Imaginations and dreams gave way to decomposition as I watched my father retreat into what I would later realise was depression. My once-safe comforting mother had, by then, almost totally dissolved into pain and anger. When both my parents were in their final phases of life I dared to fully and directly bring up the loss of the youngest member of our family – but it was ‘too late’, too hidden, ‘hardly remembered’ they said. My child that had sought the adult answers continued to be denied the required explanations, but therapy helped give the events a narrative by which to understand the family loss, pain, anxiety and depression.

Having permanently returned to my home city this year, the ‘golden’ anniversary of all that loss, I allow myself to wonder what different path there might have been if that younger sibling of mine had made it though. RIP Little One.

Much love,

Your brother

Duncan challenges you to …

… reach out to a sibling whatever your shared history.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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