"Reflections in a mirror are two dimensional representations of a multidimensional reality"
When a person walks into a therapist's office a story begins to unfold and each one is unique, original and unrepeatable. The core of the story is always the same; it is the story of a relationship between two human beings. The story is always precious because it is the product of all the vicissitudes and struggles that a patient and a therapist undergo in the healing journey.
Psychotherapy is concerned with the inner person, the inner me and the inner you. The shape of the inner person is not something fixed and stark like a stone. On the contrary, it is dynamic, changeable and very much alive; it shifts and changes like the sea with its tides and currents. Because the inner person, or the mind if you prefer, is like the ocean to explore and try to understand it, one will need a fair amount of navigational skills. The purpose of psychotherapy is the enhancement and development of navigational skills in order to chart uncharted waters.
I am often puzzled by the mysterious fact that each of us needs to become reacquainted with ourselves if we intend to experience a full harmonious and meaningful life. Freud frequently compared the mind with an iceberg in which only a tiny fraction remained above the surface and the majority remained unseen. It appears then that deep-sea diving could be another useful skill to develop in the journey of self re-discovery.
Since our birth we are always busy adapting, accommodating and learning ways of being in the world. This process is known by many names such as cultivation, maturation, education or conditioning. The gravitational pull of the world has the effect of drawing our attention away from our centre. Me, the experiencer, tends to be forgotten and what we focus on are the experiences themselves, our attractions and our aversions. "Do I like it, or don't I like it?" are superficial questions we are constantly asking and answering while at a deeper level, the experiencer, the witness, remains in the shadows mysteriously hidden behind a foggy veil. We have a tendency to get caught up more and more with the fascination of the show of life and in this way we identify with those parts of ourselves that are engaged in outer living. How easy it is to forget that it's the inner person that makes all this show possible and real.
Psychotherapy is first and foremost an invitation to visit and spend time with the inner person. The healing power of psychotherapy lies hidden in the thousands of stories that take place behind closed doors of consulting rooms all over the world. This article is about one of those stories.
One fine day I received a phone call from a woman called Grace. She was calling because a colleague had given her my name. Grace was having serious difficulties with her daughter, Julie, and she was at her wits' end. She didn't know what to do next. She told me in a brief conversation that Julie had cut herself when she was younger, that Julie was always very anxious, that she displayed obsessive qualities commonly known as anal, and that she couldn't bare to let her mother out of her sight if she didn't know exactly where she was and at what time she would be back. She was driving her mother crazy with her attempts to control her and rule her life. Julie had no friends at school and though strictly speaking, she wasn't a "school refusal", she was speedily heading in that direction. An attempt with a family centre had been tried and failed, so Grace was wondering if I could help. There was a further complication with this story. Julie who was 13 years old refused to come and see me or anyone else.
Confronted with this unpromising scenario, I made the only suggestion that I felt was open to me. I invited Grace to come and see me on her own so that we could discuss and try to make some sense of what was going on.
When we met I was immediately struck by her strength and forthrightness. She was a middle-aged woman who seemed to know what she wanted and had a no nonsense, straight to the point attitude that one often finds in people who come from the North of England. Understandably, she was very concerned about her daughter and desperately wanted to help her. She told me she didn't believe in psychotherapy very much but she did believe in some sort of human chemistry or vibes and she was hopeful that there was someone in the helping professions who might be able to help her and her daughter. This hope brought her to my consulting room.
When she was 34 years old she had Julie through In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). Grace and Julie had always lived together. They had different living arrangements over the years ranging from communal living to house sharing in different parts of the country. At the time they were living alone in a flat in London and things were getting rather heated.
I found out in the initial interview that men seemed to play a very secondary role in Grace's life and that women were a strong presence. She was not a lesbian, don't get me wrong, she did like men and she was not averse at having an occasional fling but long term, committed and meaningful relations were not on the horizon or on her agenda. She loved adventures and travelling and when she was very young, she travelled the world in search of novelties and excitement. She even travelled for a while with Julie when she was little. Grace was the youngest of four children. When she was 4 her mother had a complete breakdown which took her into a psychiatric hospital where she remained for a year. Eventually she returned back home in a fragile and vulnerable state. About her father she said: "I had no significant relation with my father, and while I was growing up I had the dominant sense that he didn't understand my mother at all and lived his life very much at a superficial level. It didn't affect my life one way or another when he died through ill health when I was 24".
At the end of our initial meeting I suggested she should bring Julie along with her the next time so we could have a discussion together and decide what to do. “But how?” she asked anxiously, “She refuses to come”. She had a point. The girl was 13 years old and mother couldn’t drag her kicking and screaming and even if she could, what good would that do? So I suggested that she could try inviting Julie to come just once to meet with me and her, and to explain to the girl that if after that she didn’t want to come back, she wouldn’t be forced to come.
The strategy seemed to work because the next time Grace arrived accompanied by her daughter. Julie was a small quiet girl that seemed younger than her age. I invited them both into my office. It became apparent very soon that Julie didn’t want to be in the room with us. I had the distinct impression that she would rather have been anywhere else. She complained that I was the fifth person she had been forced to see. The girl appeared to be very shy and reluctant to talk with me. On the other hand, while all this was going on with Julie, mother was nervously trying to explain that Julie had tried to hurt herself when she was younger and that she was very concerned about how she was behaving and responding at home and at school. Julie was desperately trying to shut her mother up. She was fidgety and nervous and she mumbled under her breath that all these things which had happened were now over and mother didn’t have the right to bring them up. As Grace appeared to be over vigilant and over sensitive to her daughter’s feelings of discomfort, I suggested that she might like to leave the room for a while and leave me alone with Julie.
As you can imagine, Julie didn’t want to be with me or talk with me. She was very reluctant to communicate and getting her to respond to my questions was like pulling teeth. I learnt through her monosyllabic answers that school was OK, that she did drama on Saturdays and that she liked drawing. Mum takes her to school in the mornings and she comes home alone at 4:30 p.m.; mother comes back at 6:15 p.m.. She watches TV, draws and doesn’t worry. She lost her grandmother who she was very close to and she recently found out that an aunt who she didn’t know, committed suicide.
I tried talking to her, telling her that deaths and changes were always very frightening and that I wasn’t surprised she was worried. After all, if something happened to mother she would be all on her own. Maybe that was why she was looking after her so much. But Julie wasn’t interested in me or in my opinions.
I asked Julie if she would consider joining me and her mother so that the three of us could form a little team to try and solve the problems they were having at home. She retorted that she didn’t need any help and that she certainly didn’t want it from me.
I tried another tactic and asked her to give us a chance of just four meetings just to try it out. She said she didn’t want to because it would become a routine and mother had said that she didn’t have to come if she didn’t want to. I had to agree with this. After all, I had established this condition and I had to honour my word. We had reached a dead end road and if I was going to be of any help to this family, I would have to think of something else.
I called mother back into the room and said that as far as I could see, there was nothing seriously wrong with Julie but that there was however, something wrong with the family, and as Julie didn’t want to join us to work as a team and there was certainly work to be done, I could try working with Grace helping her to help Julie. When I said this, Mother broke down and started crying with a deep sense of relief. Grace thought this was a very good way forward and Julie agreed wholeheartedly with this strategy. It’s hardly surprising, after all she was off the hook.
After this second meeting, I received a little card from Grace which said: “I just wanted to let you know that Julie gave you a four out of five rating on our way back (totally unsolicited!). Your whole approach is just what we need. Thank you (heart felt).” I was pleased with this outcome because the idea I held in my mind was that if Julie knew that her mother was being looked after by someone else, she would be able to rest from the burdensome task of having to be mother’s mummy.
In this way Grace started her therapy. She was coming to see me so that I could help her to help her daughter. This basic agreement between all of us seemed to make sense and it was the foundation of our relationship and the cornerstone of our understanding. A sort of "therapy by proxy". Therapy with Grace was a challenging and rewarding experience. On the last session of her therapy, Grace brought with her a very moving, unusual and personal gift: her own story in her own words of what her therapy had been like and what it had meant to her. She called it “Meeting my Match” and with her permission, I will share it with you.
I had a somewhat unusual entry into the therapeutic process as I phoned Eduardo ostensibly to see whether he would be suitable to work with my daughter who had been referred to the Child Guidance Clinic, much to my deep consternation, and I was therefore desperately seeking an alternative option. As I was gabbling to him on the phone, he just said "come and see me" and I immediately felt becalmed! Even more extraordinary, on my first visit to "check him out", whilst I was conscious of the urge to pull my chair closer to him the more I talked to him, the thought "I could do therapy with this guy" involuntarily flicked across my mind. What on earth is going on here, I thought.
I am someone who has always been regarded as "the only stable member of my family". I have always seen myself as fiercely independent (& proud of it!), totally self-sufficient with a strong sense of my own internal security.
After a couple of joint sessions with Julie which were a disaster in the sense that my daughter was totally non-compliant, I was very grateful that Eduardo felt that in no way should Julie be coerced into seeing him, that we should work together whilst leaving the door open for Julie to join us if she would like to. It takes much effort for me to reflect this far back, as I tend to live very much in the here and now, but on doing this I'm quite shocked to relive my enormous sense of relief.
I felt the lifting of a huge burden being taken off my shoulders that I wasn't even consciously aware of until that moment. Also it made good sense to me that any problems with Julie were ultimately my responsibility and that, hopefully, working on myself would have a positive benefit on how Julie felt about herself & our relationship with each other.
My anti-therapy stance emanated from a narrow and skewed vision, through limited knowledge, of what exactly therapy consisted of: Talking to someone who just shook their head now and again and didn't speak apart from making loaded value-judgements about my family, past and current lifestyle. I also felt that I hadn't experienced the kind of trauma in my life that justified therapy and therefore it would be self-indulgent. Happily for me I experienced a strong, albeit slow, conversion as strong as any religion illustrated by the fact that I seriously considered becoming a therapist myself & still am at some level. I knew I was on my way when I could refer to Eduardo as "my therapist" rather than "the bloke I see on a Wednesday".
Although I felt I connected very strongly with Eduardo from the outset, I also viewed him with some caution initially as he told me we were to embark on an intimate relationship, the first one I had ever had! When I expressed some anxiety about silences, he said we should get to the stage of being as comfortable with each other as a pair of bedroom slippers. When he said that therapy was analogous to "stepping into a boat together and sailing out to sea into uncharted waters" (this is how I remember it), I started to get the picture.
My other starkest memory of our early days together, which is the one which will never leave me, was his observation that my stability was surrounded by barbed wire. He has a wonderful turn of phrase! It was a defining moment in my realisation of (i) why I needed therapy and the experience of a relationship based on genuine emotional intimacy (ii) my hidden vulnerability & (iii) how, in a sense, I'd lived my life in a subtlety defended way whilst viewing myself as a very open person. I hadn't let anyone totally "in" and I had never totally opened myself up to anyone but unconsciously sought relationships in which I didn't have to. I'd regarded my perceived inviolability as a virtue rather than for the inherent weakness that it was. That's why it made sense to me when, towards the end of the therapeutic process, Eduardo remarked that I was excellent at "middle distance" but not the closer variety hence the struggles with Julie and in figuring out my relationship with Eduardo & particularly the anger the "closer variety" provoked in me.
My expectation that the therapeutic process would be dramatic resulted in me often dismissing our sessions as chat and didn't feel that I was undertaking "real" therapy. I now realise that this attitude was synonymous with my former attitude to life. My major dread in life was of routine i.e. knowing what I was going to do every day, nothing exciting or dramatic happening. I hate to admit it but I prided myself on, in my terms, living life to the full, "living on the edge", creating for myself seemingly unsurmountable challenges, excitement and, yes, living dangerously at times.
So what did really happen? Again, in what I see as a parallel process, as I began to appreciate the subtleties of the therapeutic process & became more relaxed to explore "what came up" whether or not it seemed significant or dramatic, so imperceptibly I became more at peace with myself and became more appreciative & satisfied with the subtleties of my own life. What before I would dismiss as mundane, unimportant or take for granted, I've now learned to cherish e.g. buying a bunch of flowers, having a laugh with my daughter, sitting in a cafe watching the world go by, letting a weekend on my own unfold without the pressure to make arrangements, understanding what people mean when they say "having my own space" rather than a constant thirst for stimulation from big "doings", dramatic happenings, courting fear & danger.
As Eduardo remarked, I have lived my whole life in a matriarchal context and my only sadness is that I've unwittingly consigned Julie to this as well & hope that this will change for her in her future. In simple terms, Eduardo gave me the experience of solid, sound, irrefutable & "in my face" male influence of the best kind &, in a sense, re-established my faith in the male race! In some ways he has been the "dad I never had" & "the man I've never had". It makes me sad that Julie hasn't had the experience of a wonderful dad (but on the other hand how many children have?).
The progress I feel I have made during the therapeutic process is inextricably linked with the type & quality of the relationship I have had with Eduardo. I see him as my strongest ally, someone who has ultimate faith in me and my capabilities but he's also very challenging which I never feel undermined by. Our relationship is very inter-active with a lot of humour, openness & he has no hesitation putting me firmly in my place when necessary which I respect him for.
Speaking of which we did have one serious rocky patch when I was mid-way through my course. As part of a life pattern I recognised, I swung from thinking he was absolutely wonderful to, in his words, "a good for nothing". It was important for me to work through this stage which I did do eventually: I was being blitzed every week by college - the time was right & I very very open to experiencing it to the full - the practice sessions were revelatory in a very personal way, the experiential group was tough going (but felt I really learnt from the process) & the theory was fascinating. I was also making a lot of valuable cross-connections & fascinating co-incidences kept occurring. I was also grappling with the decision to train to be a psychotherapist, or not, following the Foundation Year. I wasn't completely back on an even keel with Eduardo until a couple of weeks after we had agreed to finish on a regular basis at the end of term but, now we are, feel sad that I "wasted" that time.
I feel a lot of my difficulties with Julie emanated from a growing intensity in our relationship since moving down to London, when we began living on our own for the first time. I felt she was very controlling and we seemed to be in a downward spiral that I didn't have the means of breaking. I think that also, as she got older, being very sensitive & in tune with me, she keenly sensed that there was more going on inside me than presented by my outward persona - dare I admit "inner chaos"? The more anxious she became about me & the more she probed, the harder I found it, the more I felt pressurised & the more I resented it.
Again, in some imperceptible way, bringing Eduardo into the equation effected Julie in a positive way, I think she felt more secure & didn't worry about me quite so much although she would still occasionally refer to him in a disparaging way. This newly created triangle dovetailing with the benefits I gained through the therapeutic process i.e. slowly feeling better grounded, calmer & more at peace also impacted on Julie's frame of mind. I have worked hard, too, at maintaining appropriate boundaries within our relationship & I am at the stage when I can do this some of the time & know immediately at other times when I've failed. I feel this is inevitably an ongoing process, I've got to keep "my eye on the ball" & at least I now know how I should be with Julie.
I have moments of panic & envisage Julie in therapy later in her life talking about me in a negative way & feel Eduardo is very supportive about this - if she wants to make a matzo pudding out of you, that's her affair & reassuring me that I am a good mother! It was interesting at college how people did seem to see me as positive mother figure in the group with a couple of students wishing I was their mum - that had never happened to me before!
Some of Eduardo's early & very persistent joking e.g. managing to get S&M into the conversation at every session, I found quite irritating at times & even accused him of being prurient at one stage! Latterly I began to understand what he was getting at. I think the S&M forays symbolised the way I have, in the past, cheapified myself, given vent to the tyrant in me, my inclination to control, created outlets for my tendency to test conventional boundaries, to seek danger & excitement. When I now reflect on some of the things I have done & situations I've been in, cannot in any way imagine myself repeating any of them. For the first time in my life, for example, I have no interest in casual sex even of the most run of mill kind!
I feel it is a tremendous step for me to acknowledge, deep down inside myself, that I not only want a genuinely intimate permanent relationship but that I need one & that I totally deserve to have one. Someone who unreservedly loves ME, even takes care of me - I'm really getting carried away now! In the meantime, nothing less will do. I also connected with Eduardo's view that a man who was prepared to be guided would be fine, I couldn't hack a wimpy "new man" variety!
Probably from the time I started seeing Liz, I've had this uncanny sense of being guided - to Eduardo (the biggie), to even consider the possibility that I could be a psychotherapist, the course & the many connections I made whilst there, making sense of my work and my possible futures.
I have always had an awareness of the spiritual world & my connection with it which I have experienced fleetingly strong glimpses of but, most of the time, been acutely aware of the lack of spirituality in my life. It has meant a lot to me that Eduardo is a deeply spiritual person & strongly believes in the inter-relationship between spirituality & psychotherapy & I felt more drawn to him as a result. This was mirrored throughout my course which was deeply satisfying to me & I hope that I'll find a way of experiencing a more tangible ongoing spiritual dimension to my life in the future.
Although I will really miss him, feel it is right for me to break off my therapy at this time but keeping the "window open" to return at some point in the future when it feels right. I'm also relieved that Eduardo is in tune with this feeling & really understands it. I hope so much that I can find a way of making a real difference for our women & knowing that he's routing for me & has great faith in me means a very great deal to me.
I have never felt more grounded in my life, my feet feel very connected with the earth (I really understand what Stanley Keleman meant about this now) & feel that I'll continue to walk the path Eduardo has set me on in terms of being more connected with myself inside & keeping my heart open.
It might sound a bit dramatic but I really do feel that Eduardo has been my true saviour (warts & all), my friends definitely think so, & I feel that I have worked very hard on myself as well although bloody minded at times I'll admit! I have the sense that, even if I never see him again, which is very unlikely, he'll always be with me in my heart.
This ends Grace’s moving account and the best written reference I am ever likely to receive. To think I never got a chance to thank her properly but after all, she did choose to give it to me on our last session together. Never mind, these things happen and I still smile when I remember the old phrase “Love acknowledged is healing secured”.
I will conclude this article with a glance into the same mirror from another angle. From my perspective, the healing of Grace can be understood as a transformation in her consciousness, a deep change in her being. When true healing takes place it is never just a local phenomena. It has ramifications and repercussions at all levels. It is a bit like the lesson the world is painfully learning today; that we are all interrelated, and that an imbalance in one area affects the stability of all others.
In the case of Grace, there was one big area of instability, one big vacuum. There was no serious place for a man in her life. As I said before, this was not because she didn’t like men but because she didn’t think much of them. In effect this meant that there was a whole area of her being that had never been tapped or explored; she didn’t even know she had it in her. Because she came from a dysfunctional family, since she was very little Grace had had to fend for herself. She often said that she felt as if she brought herself up, though of course, this wasn’t quite true. But she felt she was her own father and mother or to be more precise, she was more like a father looking after a fragile mother helping her to survive and bring up a family. For this reason, since her childhood men were sidelined as the women got on with the serious business of living, feeling, understanding and bringing up families.
Deep down somewhere inside her, Grace had decided and accepted a long time ago that men were emotionally illiterate at a very fundamental level. She settled for that because she had never had a reason to make her question or review her judgment. On the surface, she wasn’t disappointed because she had never expected anything. That was reality, the way things were and full stop.
That view held unchallenged until Julie hit puberty and that was when the "chicken’s came home to roost". The views that Grace held about men, intimacy and sexuality might have been alright for her but they certainly were not enough to help her daughter make sense of her own budding sexuality and to initiate her into full womanhood, which was after all her birthright.
This is why mother and daughter were polarised with the child acting as the mother’s mother not trusting her, checking up on her and condemning what she perceived as mother’s sexual looseness and superficiality. Somewhere inside them, I suspect they both knew this but as they were not fully aware, they could not articulate it and resolve it.
The way I see it is that Grace’s journey to healing started with a change of mind. When she wrote that therapy had re-established her faith in the male race, she was expressing something very profound; she was saying that she had changed her mind. She had decided to allow her faith to go where it had not been allowed to go before. They say that “Necessity is the mother of invention” and it was in response to the needs of her child that Grace was forced to come out of her prejudiced and blinkered state.
Julie, like all children, needed and wanted her mum to be a role model in her life, one that she could look up to. Grace had always been this for Julie but to be able to go on fulfilling this role for her daughter, she needed to sort out her own underdeveloped emotions; she had to dig deeper into her soul, to go deeper than ever before, in order to bring some reality to that two dimensional, lopsided caricature of a man that she was carrying inside her head and which had kept her heart closed and untouched.
To her credit, Grace let me into her life and we really did navigate uncharted waters. By this I mean that she gave me her trust. She trusted me with herself and she trusted me with her daughter. This trust wasn’t just blind faith, it was based on something solid: a meeting of minds and a convergence of hearts.
We understood alike, we thought alike, and when we didn’t, it was always frank, robust and above board, so it didn’t matter.
As Grace was letting me into her life, she was in effect drawing me closer to the centre of her heart. As we walked along the path of intimacy, I noticed that ancient crusty bits in her being started to melt and old familiar ghosts started to evaporate like dew in the morning sun. A process of internal alchemy had started to take place.
As is clear by her story, she really valued my presence and my input into her life. As time passed, her heart expanded more and more and old outdated ideas that got in the way of her growth were discarded as inadequate. This allowed her heart to embrace parts of the world which had been ignored and neglected for such a long time.
Because her relationship with Julie was so close, the child noticed very quickly the changes in mum. It was obvious that Grace felt contained by the strength of our relationship, and as a consequence this gave her the necessary strength and foresight to contain her daughter’s anxieties without loosing herself in the process. In this way, an old vicious circle was broken and a new more virtuous cycle was created. I say it was virtuous not because it was easy but because it gave space for both Grace and Julie to continue evolving in their own natural way. Things were back to normal; they were the right side up. Grace was once again the mother and Julie the child. Somewhere in the background stood I, a benign reassuring, somewhat over idealised mother-partner and father-figure. Grace and Julie could start to relax. As Grace calmed down there was a change in her mood and in her perception of life. She described it as being more at peace and more appreciative and satisfied with the subtleties of her own life. She learned to cherish what she had dismissed as unimportant. In this way, Grace was learning to love herself with all her perceived blemishes and she was able to be herself without having to run away. She discovered to her surprise that it was quite nice to be herself and she could really enjoy who she was if she allowed herself to. This change of atmosphere brought a great sense of relief to her and to her daughter.
The last I heard of Julie was that she had settled into a new school, she was doing well and her social life was getting brighter. She still had a tendency to boss her mother around but that had greatly diminished. As for Grace, she continued with her life's mission which was the work she had dedicated herself to. She was a champion, campaigner and powerful advocate for disadvantaged women.
The secret of the positive outcome of this story lies in the old maxim: “You change your mind and you change your life”. Changing ones mind going into the unknown is invariably frightening but we learn what is significantly new only through adventures. True adults are those who have learned to continually develop and exercise their capability for transformation.