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Tricky treat

ImageI’ve come across this image of a monkey trapped by its own stubbornness a number of times, particularly in my clinical work. I remember one man who came for counselling. He was off sick with depression, anxiety and insomnia. As part of my assessment interview I asked a question about his childhood. There was a long pause and he began telling me about how much he hated his father for always bullying him and humiliating him. As he spoke he was crying. “I’ve never told anyone about this before” he said. “It’s just too painful.” I saw him for another session the following week and he was again tearful and sad. By the end of the session he looked and sounded a little less distressed.I was hopeful that we could work together towards some healing. He rang me during the next week to cancel his counselling, telling me he couldn’t bear the pain any more and had asked his G.P. to increase all his medication, which they did. And whilst i was aware of how painful his memories were, I was left feeling that for him, holding on to his pain was more important than letting it go. He simply wanted something to numb the pain than to risk letting it go. I suspect that he is still held back personally and professionally by his past. But that this is a trade off he is prepared to make.

This holding on has characterised a number of people who have come to see me with their difficulties but who are not yet able to leave their past for a different future- a future in which they are not trapped by their past selves. For them, the prize in the jar is more important than the freedom that might come if they let it go. To let go of that prize also involves mourning its loss and all the dreamed off possibilities it offered.If my whole life has been defined by my loss, can I bear to lose that identity? Who will love me if I am not ill? Who will need me if I am not need? Yeats wrote of the man whom sorrow called his friend. If nothing else, that man had one friend!

There is also a risk for the counsellor. How much growth does his patient want to make? I am helping my patients to make whatever changes they choose. I may think that they should “work harder” but I am not them. It is painful to see a patient leave when we both know the work is unfinished.But only they can make the decision about that. My task is to help them to see the consequences of keeping their hand in the jar. And to honour those choices- albeit longing to swing a large hammer!

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