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.

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.

Dying twice

Portrait_002This year, and for the first time, the anniversary of my father’s death some years ago passed by without me remembering …

It had been a short drive to the nursing home my father had moved to eight days previously. My wife and I had been his primary carers for close to a decade but when, fourteen weeks earlier, he had fallen and broken his hip, his move away from his home and into the healthcare system sparked in him a serious decline. There was also a touch of guilt at the freedoms his move was affording to us.

As we neared the care home, an ambulance on an emergency call passed us. A minute later we drew up behind it and a paramedic vehicle already parked at the home. My wife said to me, ‘It’s for your father.’ I winced; I felt her to be right.

As we strode down the corridor of the second floor suite in which my father had taken residency, a member of staff addressed us: ‘Are you here to see Brian?’

‘Yes,’ we both smiled.

There was already a temporal shift occurring – odd, I thought, no one has addressed us in such a way before. A nurse blocked our path to my father’s room: ‘You’re Brian’s relatives?’ Somehow, in a moment, we were all in her office. My wife looked pale: ‘You’d better sit down Mrs Stafford.’ But there was a dreadful tension and confusion in the space. With my psychotherapist’s hat on I honed in on the emotion – there was huge anxiety being broadcast from this experienced nurse. After a few words she left us saying, ‘I’ll just check on your father’s condition.’ It hit my wife and me at the same moment and we rushed along the corridor.

Bundling into my father’s room we saw a paramedic ‘shouting’ at the prone and half naked figure: ‘Come on Brian … stay with us.’ My father’s chest heaved in physical distress as a bag covered his mouth and another medic prepared to shock him. His skin had the waxy hue and paleness I’d seen on my mother as she passed away.

In the small living space that had become my father’s whole world the paraphernalia of modern emergency support was strewn all around. My wife was first to enunciate her horror: ‘What are you doing this for?!’

For several weeks in three separate medical establishments my father, despite his communication difficulties caused by a stroke some years earlier, had made himself understood – he wanted to die. For the long years before he broke his hip my wife and I had cared for my father, it had been difficult to watch his almost daily decline; he had been a proud, principled and independent man, a teacher and an artist. At eighty, long overdue, he become a published poet. Difficult as it was to watch, we respected that this was a man fading out at his own request. And yet here we were, thrust into the most terrible of moments – a man who wanted to die being forced back into a world he no longer had an interest in. Our protestations that my father be allowed to pass away brought yet more tension into the room. The ‘shouting’ stopped, but our fourteen weeks of frustrations at the NHS care system were too much for me and my wife.

In counterpoint we made our cases aloud to the six medics about respect and civilised treatment. But apparently, my father’s DNR (do not resuscitate) wishes had not been recorded in the requisite manner. Procedure and regulation were in the way of care and welfare, and overrode my father’s desires.

For his entire adult life, my father voted for a system that respected people, treated them well; a welfare state, a national health service, free at the point of need – one of the marks of a civilised and mature society. Those entrusted to administer NHS continuing healthcare had already attempted piracy with his rights and, now, these paramedics were clearly having to apply procedure rather than the human care they so obviously wished to dispense.

My father was being denied his wish to die peacefully and with respect. This was a system seeking to revive him so that it might take him back to a hospital he had already refused to be taken to, in order that he could ‘die’ once more, probably on a trolly in a corridor in A&E.

Before all was lost, the senior paramedic took control and through several different stages and conversations that involved myself and my father’s GP the paramedics were allowed to ‘withdraw’. And then the room was quiet and my father once more calm. His beloved Radio could be heard in the corner of his room and death once more began to claim his body. Peacefully and with us as comforters for his passage he was able to complete his life, with respect and dignity.

Duncan suggests …

… reading the book ‘Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death‘ by Irvine D. Yalom,

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.