Here’s a funny thing: real wounds disgust me. Someone suffering physical pain is hard for me to tolerate; the pain gets under my own skin, I feel it and can do nothing about it. But emotional wounds, now, there I have no problems at all. I don’t mind if people cry or whine or panic. I suppose the difference is that I believe there’s something effective I can do, and, well it’s interesting, the way that things upset us. There have been times when I’ve considered training as a therapist, but on the whole, I’d rather remain a curious amateur, reading fascinating books like Rosemary Dinnage’s One to One: Experiences of Psychotherapy. The book is composed of 20 case histories, written from the point of view of the clients rather than the therapists. Dinnage has obviously interviewed her chosen subjects, but in the book the questions are removed, leaving them to tell their own stories, uninterrupted.
And what stories they are! Much as there are wide variations between the people in these studies, there are similarities, too. An intolerable sense of isolation becomes a common theme, the feeling of never being seen as one really is, of having no one who can really hear the depth and extent of their sorrow. Often the move into therapy is motivated by a significant failure – a breakdown, a collapse in exams, a marriage falling apart, the death of a child. But equally often, there has simply been an ongoing recognition that the person is living a half life, unable to access the full extent of their qualities, a prisoner inside a personality that is not their own.
Some of the stories are very affecting. The case study of ‘Helen’ concerns a young woman from a family of academics and doctors. She was the first born and expected to be ‘Einstein and Isaac Newton rolled into one.’ To add to the pressure, her father was clearly a difficult man: ‘And then days of silence. It was my father’s anger. It held the whole house in thrall. And if he was angry with you, he was angry with everybody and he wouldn’t speak. So everybody was sucked into this vortex and it was terrifying.’ Now whilst some children might not have been affected by this kind of behaviour, Helen’s natural insecurity, and her sense of not fitting in, compounded her anxiety around her father. She describes how ‘I was trying to force myself into the sort of daughter he wanted and please him in the academic field, which was the only way he wanted. And just completely failing, utterly. Because I always thought in the wrong way, in a way that was unacceptable, I just stopped thinking.’ Helen failed to get good qualifications, lost jobs, was unable to hold down a relationship, found herself unable to do any of the usual things because of cripplingly low self-esteem and excessive anxiety.
There are a lot of cases like this, where children have failed to get the approval they needed from parents, sent away to boarding school at very young ages, or left with a manic parent when the stable one has died young. One woman described how her mother had said to her, when her own children were small: ‘When you were two you used to wake me up crying, so I said to you, “You’ll damage the baby if you wake me up, and you’ll damage me, and if you go on, I’ll put you in the boxroom” and you never cried again!’ Great! Implying that’s what I should say to my children.’ It is amazing the things that people will do to their kids, amazing. But then there are other difficulties too, like the poor woman who had lost a child, or the boy who’d dropped out of Oxford, and another young man, extraordinarily arrogant, whose whole family had been in analysis and so it was simply something he knew he would do.
As for what happens in that analysis, well, it’s not always good. There are some real horror stories in here, mostly arising from the therapists who refuse to interact in a normal, human way with their clients. One terribly sad old lady says over and over ‘I was thinking all the time, I’m doing this all wrong. What’s the matter with me? – if only someone would explain it to me.’ And another woman says with humourous disbelief ‘When I first came he would say “Good morning” or “Good day” or something like that but then he stopped. And I asked him why he’d stopped, and he said because it was not necessary, he’d taken the decision that there was more communicated by that than there should be.’ Unsurprisingly, most of these therapies dragged on and went nowhere. It’s difficult for people who have such a lack of faith in themselves to stand up to healers who are doing them no good and to say so. Some clearly should have been drummed out of practice, like the therapist who refused to declare her rates to her client, suggesting she was aware of his financial difficulties, and then clobbered him a few months down the line with a $900 bill.
But there are as many who have experienced a real upturn in their quality of living. ‘I had a prospective self before,’ one man says. ‘I only wanted to be somebody.’ Now he realises, ‘You have your strength, you have order and you have your brains. You have this marvellous palette and everything coming at you at once, and you’ve just got to handle it.’ Another woman said ‘He was able to put to rest this hurt, then this other hurt, then this other one – so, that’s gone, and that’s gone.’ ‘Jeffrey’ said ‘You learn, I suppose, to quite like yourself, and the bits you don’t like, you learn that they’re part of you and that’s that; you get a sort of inner peace from them.’
The key to healing seems to be in the correct match between therapist and client. Sounds simple, doesn’t it, and yet it is not so obvious as all that. One of the most extraordinary cases is the story of ‘Sarah’, a young woman who acted out appallingly in her sessions, smashing up the analyst’s room and refusing to leave when her time was up. The analyst was clearly out of her depth and had to call the police several times to have her removed. Eventually she was moved over to another therapist, one who told her straight up ‘I’m not having any destructiveness. I won’t tolerate messing up of my room; I’ll just call someone to take you into the next room.’ ‘And so in some way it was safe,’ she recalls. The analyst was harsh with her, declared a session over before the time was up if he felt she wasn’t being responsive, asked her to bring him presents at other times. Yet the client loved this behaviour and responded well to it. At other times he’d let her return later in the day if she was really upset, and unlike many therapists he was happy to hold her if she cried. What she needed was someone so real and honest that he let every emotion show, as it were. In this environment, she felt secure and able to access more reasonable patterns of behaviour.
What I found so intriguing across the book was the way that little things can create so much emotion in response. How it’s the simple things, the one plus one of life that refuses to add up to two, that need to be addressed. It’s interesting also how long the process is to normality, and how painful. Therapy is not for the faint-hearted. But if one thing sums the whole business up, points to both the cause of the damage and the solution, it’s encapsulated in the understanding of one of the subjects who’d come out of a painful ménage à trois: ‘We’d had ideological a prioris of one kind or another, about how one should or should feel and behave, you know, which weren’t really rooted in an understanding of how people are.’ That, for me, really nails it. When we are forced into incongruence, obliged to present a façade or act out a role that does not correspond to the way we really are, trouble results. And yet you look about you at society and the sheer volume of rules and regulations, the excessive demands we place upon ourselves and others, to be like this, to act like that, there’s no end to it. Is this the basis of civilisation and its discontents – too may ideals of happiness and stoicism and achievement that simply do not take into account the reality of our limitations?
As I say, fascinating stuff.