A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.

Best Books of 2013

This may not have been a fabulous year for me personally, but it was a great reading year. I had very few reading slumps and enjoyed a bumper number of good books. Above all it was the year for non-fiction, so much so that I’ve had to introduce a range of categories to cover all the books I feel obliged to mention. Let us look back fondly.

Best Literary Fiction

Louise Erdrich – The Round House

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American


Best Innovative Fiction

J. R. Crook – Sleeping Patterns


Best Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall


Best Debut Novel

Beatrice Hitchman – Petite Mort


Best Quirky Cute Novel You Can Read In An Afternoon

Alexis M. Smith – Glaciers


Best General Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Harriet Lane – Alys Always

Amanda Smyth – A Kind of Eden


Best Contemporary Crime

Stella Rimington – The Geneva Trap

T. V. LoCicero –Admission of Guilt


Best Golden Age Crime

Elizabeth Daly – Somewhere in the House


Best Crime That Managed To Be About More Than Crime

Attica Locke – The Cutting Season


Best Poetry Collection

Kaddy Benyon – Milk Fever


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Nature

Kathleen Jamie – Findings

Neil Ansell – Deer Island


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Memoir

Jennie Erdal – Ghosting

James Lasdun – Give Me Everything You Have; On Being Stalked

Kathryn Harrison – The Mother Knot


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Completely Uncategorizable

Maggie Nelson – Bluets  (my favourite post of the year)

Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life


Best Non-Fiction That Brought Self-Illumination

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Susan Cain – Quiet


Special Award for Services to Existentialism

(I will never tire of watching that)

To Overshare Or Not To Overshare?

Kathryn Harrison had a succès de scandale in the late 90s with her memoir The Kiss, in which she recounted the four years of incestuous relationship she had with her father. Thinking to save that book for the program of creative non-fiction works I’m reading this year, I decided to try her out with a different memoir, The Mother Knot. It was 82 pages of dynamite that held me gripped as soon as I’d begun, and yet when I finished, I began to wonder about the last thing that should seem problematic with such a candid and upfront narrator – the truthfulness of the story.

mother knotThe narrator is weaning the youngest of her three children when the memoir begins. At 26 months, her daughter is relatively grown-up for breastfeeding, but it is a wrench for her mother, and one that darkens her underlying mood. Not long after this, her 10-year-old son develops severe asthma, and in her extreme anxiety over his condition, Kathryn Harrison finds herself drawing dark and superstitious conclusions. Although she nurses him with an assiduity and attention to detail that could not be bettered, her growing belief is that somehow she is the cause of his illness:

It had been four months before my son’s hospitalisation that I’d stopped nursing, relinquished that cherished perception of myself as my children’s primal source of sustenance and love. Now the onset of my son’s asthma attack struck me as an indication of my new impotence. Worse and more irrationally, it seemed to reveal me as dangerous. I saw – felt – a black, destructive spirit, dybbuk or dervish, twisting out of my chest, a force of corruption that sprang from me and infected my son, choked and smothered him.’

Harrison is an intelligent lady, and she’s had a reasonable amount of therapy. She knows that her mindset is related to the complicated and dissatisfactory relationship she had to her own mother, who gave birth to her at 17 and then abandoned her to grandparents six years later. The pregnancy was intended to place some distance between Kathryn’s mother and her grandmother, a relationship that was itself fraught with possessiveness. Kathryn, her mother told her, was intended to be ‘a hostage’, someone to take her place and allow her the freedom she had never had. Understandably, Kathryn as a child found this reasoning hard to follow, aware only that she was unable to please her mother, despite the ballet, the Sunday school and the diets. She emerged from the relationship with an unshakeable conviction that she was bad, polluted and wrong. It didn’t take much in the way of crisis in her adult life to return her to that place of universal guilt, in which she could be responsible even for the illness of her son.

As a strategy of appeasement, she starts to starve herself again. Anorexia turns out to be the ongoing problem: ‘I admitted that anorexia was a maladaption; and I admitted, with chagrin, to more than two decades of remissions mistaken for recoveries.’ Like most anorexics, the practice has much less to do with body shape than it has to do with mental control and darkly divine sacrifice. ‘Would that it were as simple as vanity,’ she tells her husband, when he says, in an attempt at coertion, her how much less attractive she looks too thin. ‘I’d characterized my eating disorder as a shatterproof glass box. I was inside, alone and safe. I could see out, and nothing could get in.’ But a life devoted to the harshest form of self-control is taking its toll. Her doctor threatens her with hospitalisation unless she gets her eating under control, her therapist is losing patience with her, and she fears how angry her husband will be if she can’t take care of herself well enough to be the wife and mother their family needs. In extremis, she knows she must confront the ghost of her mother, dead these past seventeen years, and finally break free.

I’ve quoted the text as much as possible because Kathryn Harrison is an amazing writer. The prose is powerful, vivid, economical, the mysteries of the mind described with exquisite insight and acuity. For a brief memoir, this certainly packs an emotional punch although the touch is light. The arc of the narrative flies like a skimming stone, glancing off the most salient points of her story – her relation to her mother, the vortex of uncontrollable emotions that threaten to pull her down, the epiphany she experiences and the solution she discovers. It is all brilliantly done, and so neat and tidy, not a single word wasted.

This was, I felt, an amazing piece of storytelling. And yet everything that was so well done about it, took it further and further away from life as we live it, and crises as we actually experience them. Where was the resistance, the procrastination, the backsliding that attends every inch of fresh terrain won from the forces of negativity that run their lucrative rackets in the mind? Where were the months spent stumped and hopeless in the therapist’s chair? Deep-rooted problems are beyond stubborn to dig out, and they react poorly to just about any form of treatment. Like computers, minds have default settings, bizarre agreements that were made in the era before reason, or awareness of the true value of things, and they are the very devil to uproot.

But of course, none of this makes for good storytelling, necessarily. One of the best novels I’ve ever read about the therapeutic process is the highly autobiographical The Words To Say It by Marie Cardinal. When that book was translated into English, the translator felt justified in leaving a whole chunk of it out, on the grounds that it was repetitive. This was the point. The myths on which we base our sense of self have to be gone over again and again. And probably again. You may well ask, does it matter if we leave some of this out in the stories we end up telling about ourselves? And I think it does, because storytelling is not innocent, when it comes to the connection between identity and narrative. The tighter the story, the more beautiful it is, the less we want to unravel it. This is the way that those original stories of love and terror bind us in the first place. And then I worry that people in trouble might read this and view it as inspirational, wondering miserably why they are not capable of identifying and solving their problems as slickly. When the truth is that healing is a messy, graceless process, not an edited montage.

But… I would not be honest, either, if I denied what a well-written book this is, or how compellingly it reads, or how piercing its understanding of psychic pain. Read it for its insight and its honesty, but do not believe it is the full truth.

The Examined Life

the examined lifeBest book of the year so far is Stephen Grosz’s compilation of case stories from his thirty years as a psychotherapist, The Examined Life; How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Freud once wrote that he was surprised how his case histories read like short stories, which was a tad disingenuous but never mind. Grosz’s read like little parables, only wrapped around a moment of revelation or understanding, and the result is moving and enlightening.

Recounted with grace and clarity and mostly in the space of a few pages, the stories introduce us to a particular patient or occasionally a particular theme. There’s the patient in an affair with a married man who absolutely refuses to see that he will never commit to her, the widow lurching from one silly, pointless crisis to another as a way of distracting herself from her grief, the small boy who behaves as outrageously as he possibly can, spitting in the therapist’s face every session, the man who is boring as a subversive form of aggressing others. All life is here, in its misshapen splendour, and the beauty of every story is that we get to see these people through the compassionate eyes of Stephen Grosz. There’s neither pity nor irritation, simply sympathetic interest backed up by a razor sharp intelligence. When we reach the moment of higher understanding, when for instance, Grosz realises that the small boy’s spitting is designed to provoke his anger, because that anger tells them both that he can change, that he isn’t as permanently broken as both of them fear, it’s like the moment Kafka talks about, when the book is an axe for the frozen sea within us.

I often think that one of the fundamental goals of life is to be seen – and ideally accepted – exactly as we are. The point of therapy is to make us see and accept ourselves, but the lure of the therapist is wrapped up in the longing for someone else to do it. Indeed, in one of the stories, in which a man with HIV keeps falling asleep in his sessions, Grosz becomes aware that healing his patient is about holding him alive in his own mind. It’s easier for the man to accept the possibility of his death if he knows he lives on elsewhere. So, if one of our goals is to be seen properly by others and mentally held safe there, then one of our biggest basest fears is that our image will simply deteriorate in the minds of others, that they will fail to give us the benefit of the doubt, or their own anxieties and aggressions will deform or distort our true and constant portrait. For me, this is why psychotherapy is so fascinating: it shows us what we can really give one another that matters, and in its practice it shows us how these important things can so easily be bent out of shape or changed into some mutant version of their original, valuable intentions. Still considering this essential notion of being held in thought in other people’s minds, Grosz talks about paranoia and shows how it is used to ward off the altogether more painful belief that other people are actually completely indifferent to us. I suppose it’s a version of Oscar Wilde’s saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

There have been doubts expressed about the ethics of publishing case histories, even though it’s been common practice ever since psychotherapy began. But for anyone who worries about such things, there’s a little note at the back of the book in which Grosz explains that he sought permission from every patient he mentions and let them read the relevant part of the manuscript. I find a tear in my eye every time I read his comment that all were willing to share their experience, and most expressed a hope that their story would help others. This is the whole point of accepting that we are flawed, mistake-oriented creatures who often find supposedly simple things almost impossible to do: from this perspective, we are in touch with our humility. And humility breeds compassion. Both are absolutely essential for loving and being lovable. Everyone should read this book and feel it chip away any ice around their hearts, to let our admirable human capacity for love and compassion flow through.