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.


  1. Powerful. I cannot really describe adequately how moved I am by this post in particular. It is so valuable to read this from a Therapist's viewpoint.
    Thank you.

  2. Jeez, I've lived in the sentences, words and broken places, and I've lived between those places too.
    This is an amazingly understanding post.
    My anthology at touches the surface.
    Thank you for this and your other posts. I have only just 'discovered' you through Twitter thanks to @HelenJFisher a very good friend to me.

  3. Helen: Thank you for such a lovely comment. So pleased that you enjoyed reading it from my particular perspective.

  4. Fenlander2: Thank you for such kind words. I shall seek out your anthology and read it.

  5. Wonderful post. I'm at the other end of my psychotherapy career yet can relate to the connection you describe here. I'm person centred, so appreciate the lack of medical terminology! Look forward to reading more of your work.

  6. John: Thanks for your interest and positive comments. I used to supervise a team of person-centred counsellors & always revelled in their ability to 'be with' the people they counselled. Hope your career turns out to be as fulfilling & enlightening as mine was.

  7. This weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday:

  8. Wow - this is a beautiful description of listening. I did my doctoral dissertation on listening in rehearsals - the importance of listening with the whole being is still an unsung art and you are a practitioner par excellence of this art.

  9. Thank you stormyriver ...

    And thank you Schmutzie for featuring my blog on Five Star Friday. Very privileged.

    Marousia - such a lovely compliment. Thank you so much. Active listening - or 'being with' - is such an important part of being a therapist. Bob Hobson describes it as 'aloneness-togetherness' ... a beautiful description that, for me, captures the essence of the therapeutic alliance.

  10. I can't begin to express what your words have stirred in me...."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." that to me is a way many survivors long for...I found that safe with Z..helps me to remember it is out there somewhere..yes yes I am dark and talk about the loss..but my God I do remember the "safe" the"free" and looking into his eyes and for the first time not seeing shame....Thank you Peter...As always...XOXOXO