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.

Don’t do it, Mr Collingwood …

Portrait_002I think I first noticed the man because he looked uncannily like a school teacher I’d had a positive relationship with. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I went to the supermarket, the man was always there. I’d say inside my head, ‘Good morning “Mr Collingwood”’ in that distinct rhythm we are all taught to address teachers by as school children.

Sometimes I’d meet ‘Mr Collingwood’ in one of the aisles; on other visits I’d see him, almost hunkered down, in the far corner of the car park, close to the railway line – my favourite parking spot.

When someone looks familiar, I think we signal something to the other person – perhaps we radiate a connection in the unconscious that they respond to.

Over the warm summer months it felt comfortable striking up a non-verbal, nodding acquaintance. When you see someone often enough on a regular route or passage, you begin to notice things about them. What I observed about ‘Mr Collingwood’ was that despite his slender frame he was always eating, but there were only ever two things he consumed: a large baguette pulled straight from the bread rack, cellophane wrapper rolled a little way down as he consumed it; or a family size bag of salt and vinegar chipsticks. Both the baguette and the chipsticks were eaten in a very similar manner – thumbs to the back of the packaging and fingers to the front. He would tilt his head down to a fixed position and then the packaging was raised close to his mouth as the food from within was consumed. It took a few observations before I was certain, but it became clear that bread was eaten inside the supermarket yet the salt and vinegar snacks were only ever eaten outside. In fact, the more often I saw him with the savoury snacks, the more I noticed he ate the sticks in a manner reminiscent of a horse with a nose bag, munching up the hay.

I’m not that certain how many times I actually saw ‘Mr Collingwood’ and I’m not sure how quickly I realised he had mental health issues, but we were exchanging a few words by the time the clocks went back in autumn. We never went beyond an ‘It’s warm today …’, ‘For the time of year …’ type of conversation, but it seemed appropriate, safe, friendly – respectful, even.

Shortly before Christmas, on my journey to the supermarket I was overtaken by a police car. At the roundabout, which is the entry road to the store, I could see, close to my parking spot, another police car. The traffic quickly began to back up at the railway crossing and it was clear that a late middle age man, stripped to the waist, was in major distress in the middle of the track. Those with mental health problems need to be treated sensitively and it is incumbent upon police officers to respond in such a manner. Being the first at a scene like this you’d hope the officers had extensive training in how to calm a situation and deal with the distress. But how can this really be expected of a service that was created for very different purposes? I took a look at the officers. They were young and I’m certain trying to do their best, but watching the scene from the car park it was apparent that every time a uniformed figure approached and shouted out to the half-naked figure, a wave of distress racked the figure’s body. He repeatedly raised his hand then smashed his fists on his body like a man boxing an internal shadow he was trying to rid himself of. I looked around for ‘Mr Collingwood’ and my heart leapt; for a moment I didn’t catch my breath and then a tear pricked my eye. It was poor ‘Mr Collingwood’ who was on the railway line. I pushed myself forward for a few metres and talked to the female officer closest to me.

‘I wonder if I can help?’ I asked.

‘No sir, we have to keep you back this side of the line,’ she replied.

‘I know this man a little; I’m a psychotherapist.’

What the hell am I saying!! This isn’t my line of work anymore. I’ve not worked in a hospital department since 2004.

‘We have called for an appropriate medical professional sir, if you could just stand back please.’ And I watched as three other officers tried to herd ‘Mr Collingwood’ like a farm animal.

I’ve not seen him since at the supermarket; I miss our nods and acknowledgements of the simple things we’ve noticed of the day. I hope you are well ‘Mr Collingwood’, I hope you are well.

 

Duncan suggests …

… talking to people in the world as we pass through. Little acknowledgements or kind words can be important connections for us all.

 

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.