Wednesday, 22 December 2010

In-betweens: inside the hour of a therapy session.

I have recently felt deeply privileged and so humbled to read a number of postings about the emotional distress that people have undergone or are currently going through. Some of those people have gone on to describe their personal recoveries and it’s been such a joy for me to witness them writing themselves back – or, perhaps more accurately - forward into existence. Others still struggle, yet find an outlet and some comfort, I believe, by expressing their difficulties through the written word.

Each time I read such a disclosure I am drawn to that person. I feel a strong desire to hug and comfort him/her … though I know I cannot. All I have is the very public ‘comment’ box at the end of the posting &/or my 140 Twitter characters to respond as best I feel able to.

This blog posting is dedicated to anyone and everyone who is suffering or has suffered from any amount of emotional distress. It is an imaginary account (based on my experiences as a psychotherapist) of what I am calling ‘the in-between’ of a therapy session. It involves a woman who is still haunted by her experiences of childhood abuse (which many of the people I worked with were). It is my attempt to break away from the clinical language that devalues people’s life experiences by medicalizing them and labelling them as ‘mental illness’. I offer no theory and no academic references. It is a therapy vignette written on the notepad that I keep next to my heart.

In between the sentences
in the gaps between words
I hear the broken place.   (Mary Lee, In Between)

All betweens need edges. I sit at my edge and quietly open the door in me.

She sits huddled like a foetus. She stares at the floor but sees nothing. Moments pass, like icy mist drifting along a deep valley. She is alone in a pure white room: a dream place where nerves are severed and hurt dissipates into the ether.

Outside, stormlight hangs like a shroud. Single rainshots become drumfire
on the window, a cannonade of doom. Unlocked by the squall her head lifts, turns. She begins to weep, softly at first. Suddenly, she is howling, her arms thrashing, her fists beating the air.

She rises, her eyes almost violet with agony. I feel her fear as she steps across the threshold into me. She stumbles and nudges my innards as she walks. I wince; she seems unaware.

She roams in me, now, looking for a particular space, a hollowed container deep in the bloodpink viscera of me: a living, breathing, bowl-shaped organ that does not have an anatomical name. I feel the anxiety in my belly as she collapses and vomits her agony into it: spews out the green curdled bile that has caused her to retch with self-loathing.

She begins to talk, silently, about the child who is not her – and a shadow of a man stinking over her, rasping the grate of his stubble on her cheek. His beerstale breath sickens her; heavy jets of air whistle down his nostrils as he lowers himself upon her.

She screams a first-time scream, heaves herself upwards and runs deep into the depth of me where she falls, collapsing into unconsciousness. I look at her and see a child escaping into sleep: a fitful sleep with screaming winds that howl across the wilderness of her soul.

She blinks awake. I smile my trust to her and feel my door closing. She has stumbled out of my body, too ashamed to meet my gaze.

Somehow, we both behave as though there are five minutes of this hour left. The last of those minutes is an everness away.

She is shaking. I have a strong urge to comfort her. It passes. It passes into knowing that touch, here, is unnecessary. My presence, my staying, the closeness of my distance is good-enough. I have held her like an invisible mother; I have shown her devotion.

The hour is finished. She rises, awkward as a princess. I think she will return. Her presence lingers in me like incense burning on a glowing coal.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Visitor

He called again today. I sensed Him
inside my nostrils, the soft folds of my throat,
the grey melt under my skull.

He didn't stay long,
just long enough to pull clouds the colour of tombstones
over my stars.

I know He will come again,
silent as blackdamp, ignoring all my excuses
as He cracks the glaze of my eyes with His knucklebones.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

I-Thou: making cosmic connections

‘The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly’ - Martin Buber

Several days ago, I climbed inside a snowdrift. I had been taking photographs of the extraordinary weather conditions that we’ve experienced over the past week here in West Yorkshire and became intrigued by the smooth contours of a particular drift. If you can imagine, the drift itself at its highest point was around six feet tall but the strong winds had crafted the snow into a circular container. If I looked to the North or the East I could see nothing but the purest blue-white snow. When I gazed out to the West where the drift was waist-high, the snow-covered valleys and the moors beyond stood out like a white patchwork quilt brushed with soft buttery tones of low sunlight. To the South, where the drift was a mere two-foot high, I could look back down the lane: a corridor of undulating snow-waves edged by the glittering, snow-covered bushes in the hedgerows.

I stood … and I listened. At first, I heard nothing. As my senses slowly acclimatised to the silence I began to notice sounds: a plane humming gently, miles high in an azure sky … the dying of a leaf’s slow fall to earth … the sudden sound of a finch’s breath chattering life into the freeze of a morning. I looked into the snow and saw the different shades of white, pushed my fingers into the soft crush of its texture and, putting them to my mouth, tasted the melt of its chilly essence on my tongue.

The next thing I remember is the throaty grumble of a passing Land Rover pulling me from my reverie. Yet time had most certainly passed between my experiencing of the snow and my moment of awakening. At some point in space my glacial cocoon had ceased to be an It, as I became bound up in relation to it. As Martin Buber writes, I had been ‘seized by the power of exclusiveness.’

What does Buber mean by this? In his seminal text I and Thou he describes his encounter with a tree. ‘I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.’ Despite Buber’s poetic description of the tree it remains an object to him: a structure standing tall in space and time. However, as he is drawn into the heartwood of the tree, he is no longer separated from it. He does not physically touch the tree, yet he has joined with it in a spiritual way. He is in a state of I-Thou, where all the individual components of the tree and its widest surroundings have fused into a wholeness that includes him too.

Buber likens this spiritual joining with an ‘other’ to the pre-natal life of a child within its mother’s womb. ‘In the mother’s body,’ he writes, ‘man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it.’ In the primal world of the mother’s womb there is a ‘cosmic connection’ between the unborn child and its mother. When birth occurs and the cord is cut, the child experiences separation for the first time: a world of other-than-me objects. From the moment the child inhales its first lungful of air, the desire for that primary connection with its true Thou will dwell in its spirit for the remainder of its breathing life.

Inside my snow pod it seems the absolute wonder of nature had captured my Thou. I had lost contact with its individual parts (the snow, the sounds, the surrounding countryside) and stepped into the glory of the whole. Only when I was jerked out of that space by the jeep’s approach did my relationship with the eternal Thou melt away and the objective experience of being in the drift kick back in.

Back home, sat by the fireside sipping steaming hot coffee and biting into a slice of freshly buttered toast, I considered this comfortable world of objects that offers me all manner of incitements, activities and rewards. Surely, I thought, the reassuring presence of the familiar is more precious to us than the odd, ephemeral drift into the sublime? And aren’t such ethereal encounters merely dalliances: a few minutes of escapism as we step out of a difficult and dirty world into a bubble of pure self-indulgence?

Shivers of my earlier communion with nature purled down my spine: big feelings that countered my rhetoric better than any words could. Without It (the concrete components of our world), I realised, we cannot live – but he (sic) who lives with It alone … he who never reaches beyond the security of a world of familiar things … will never step into the cool light of creation; never come to feel the reckless joy of I-Thou;

First Snow – by Mary Oliver
The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Christmas Past

Christmas – a magical time of the year ushered in a few weeks before December 25th on the eve of which a traditionally fat, jovial old man shimmies down your chimney (or squeezes through some equally unlikely orifice if you don’t have a chimney), eats the mince pie you left for him, leaves a sack full of presents under the Christmas tree and vanishes with the carrot that you’ve kindly provided for Rudolph with not a trace of soot nor a muddy boot print to behold.

Well, it’s not quite like that any more, is it? Because Christmas now begins in October (at the latest), when the first wave of puddings, crackers and toys appear on the shelves of all the big stores and supermarkets. As the big day approaches the high streets become a seething mass of automatons buying in enough food and alcohol to feed a village and making those last-minute purchases that have prospective eBay fodder stamped all over them.

And I haven’t even mentioned the miraculous event that generates such seasonal mayhem. In fact, not many people do mention it these days. What should, surely, be the focus of a major Christian celebration (some would argue pagan celebration) seems to have become an also-ran, represented by tokenism in the form of plastic nativity scenes in the centre of our shopping malls and the Salvation Army band that plays far too loudly to the oblivious throngs in the foyer of your local supermarket.

When I was a child, Christmas meant something very different from the vulgar and sickening commercialism that underpins it today. There was never a mention of it before the month of December, except for the occasional prompt from my mother to ‘write and post your Christmas wish-list to Santa,’ so that the elves had plenty of time to build at least some of the toys that I had asked for.

A couple of weeks before the 25th our teacher would dole out the familiar nativity scripts for us to learn and, probably a week later, my father would bring out a large, rather dusty cardboard box from the attic with the word ‘CHRISTMAS’ written thickly in black ink on its lid. It was then that the spirit of Christmas seeped into my small soul as my mother carefully lifted out all the penny-apiece trinkets and baubles, each individually wrapped in a sheet of newspaper: glorious greens, rich reds and exotic golds, a whole wonder of trust and unquestionable belief mirrored in their metallic colours.

‘We’ll put the tree up after tea so your dad can fix up the fairy lights on it,’ she would say. And I would be responsible for draping strands of tinsel over every branch of our ageless, synthetic Christmas tree (the cheaper option preferred by the vast majority of the proletariat) that my father would ‘plant’ in a decorated bucket full of soil to ‘make it look realistic.’

Hard as I try, I cannot connect up to Christmas any more. For me, Christmas is an old experience, never a new one. I can only touch it via distant memories, or by proxy as I witness the beautiful naivety that still dances in the eyes of my youngest children.

This Christmas eve – once our children lie sleeping – I am planning to creep back to my early childhood again to search for those tingles of comfort and joy: that launch of a thousand butterflies deep in my belly as the unmistakable jingling of Santa’s sleigh bells signals his presence on a nearby rooftop, together with a sudden burst of concern that he will not call if I don’t sleep soon. And oh! The feelings of relief and happiness as, when Christmas morning dawns early, I spy the bulging pillowcase at the foot of my bed.

Peering out over the rooftops and looking beyond all the superficial razzle-dazzle and inducement, I will search the firmament for a distant shimmering light that I last saw as a very young boy. ‘Could it be a plane?’ I will ask myself. ‘Or the beacon of a radio mast? Or, high on a moorland road, a car’s headlights fusing through the mist into one single corridor of light?’ Hopefully, if my soul has guided me back to the right place, it will be a child’s star, freed from the need for proof or exploration: the only true Christmas star in existence. 

Charlie Brown Christmas