Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Mindfullness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Whomper asks the best questions


” ‘They’re all so unlike me’ he thought, ‘They have feelings and they see colours and hear sounds and whirl around, but what they feel and see and hear, and why they whirl around doesn’t concern them in the least’.” (Whomper)

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” (Thomas Pynchon)

As a counsellor I find myself interested by Pynchon’s observation, because there really are no wrong questions in therapy. Certainly not from the point of view of the patient-  or of the therapist listening to the patient. Within the confines of the 50 minute session, all questions are interesting and important because they are all a form of communication which can lead into other issues. So the simple question about holiday dates has one reply. “I’m away throughout August.” The question could rest there. But the work lies in hearing the unasked thought. Perhaps  “I envy you. A whole month off. Lucky you.”  Or  “But you can’t leave me for a whole month. I need you.”  This can then take us to a conversation about envy, anger, hatred jealousy, abandonment and so on. (As well as a genuine wish that the therapist has an enjoyable holiday!)

Whomper and the other Moomintrolls find themselves affected by a nearby volcano exploding and disrupting their normal lives. (Volcanos are good at that!) The rest of the family seem quite sanguine about events. Not so Whomper who wants to ask all sorts of difficult questions about things and cannot understand why nobody else is as bothered as he is by these events. It is interesting that Jansson gives him the task of worrying because his name, Whomper, carries a sense of  someone who rushes about carelessly, just muddling through. Yet he ask the most interesting questions “What”and”Why”.  when I was lecturing it was common for a shy or diffident student to ask the most interesting question. “But… why do we do this?” Sometimes they almost apologised for asking a “Silly” question. Whomper seems to be doing this. “Why do people do this? What do they feel about things?”

I spent a few years in a very fundamentalist Christian group. I was one of those who always asked the “wrong” questions. I remember saying something one day and being looked at with blank bewilderment. If had spoken in Hebrew or Swahili, I could not have been more marginalised. It wasn’t that I had asked a “wrong” question, it was that I had asked a non-question. The thought processes that lead me to ask my question were inconceivable to the mind of the person to whom I was speaking. (I fairly quickly chose what questions I asked where and when. And  of whom!) For Whomper seems to be encountering something like this. (Perhaps that’s why he’s always in a hurry. So many questions to ask and so many possible answers .And so little time taken to hear the unasked question.)unknown


So unlike Pynchon, I’m not sure there are wrong questions. But that’s the luxury of being a therapist. One is always trying to understand the meaning of the question. To try and understand why “they” have feelings and see colours and hear sounds.


Borderline States, Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Mindfullness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being


advent7All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Extract from “Journey of the Magi”



The extract above is from T.S.Eliot’s poem  “Journey of the Magi”. I first heard it when I was at college and it has stayed with me. He captures the struggle of the Magi to  make their journey. These are  not triumphant warriors coming home. These are  men  who are tired. For whom the journey is uncertain. “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” That is a question that arises so often in therapy. “What am I doing here? I thought counselling was supposed to make me feel better.  I feel like shit.”

The Magi responded to a sign which they saw as significant. They were unsure what it signified, but they understood it to be important. The same is often true of my patients. They see a sign. A difficult marriage or relationship. Tensions  at work.  Perhaps feelings of depression and anxiety. These are read as signs. Signs that need to be attended to and understood. We only know that the Magi came from the East following a star. Bethlehem was an unknown destination. The  parallels to clinical work are obvious. We start from a different place. Frequently the place of our beginnings. Our place of birth. Those earliest moments of conception, pregnancy and birth which seem so far from our current places. Yet each time I see a patient we end up back at their beginning. The men whose fathers leave months after  their birth. The men whose mothers abandon them. The women who feel overwhelmed by their father’s expectations  of them. This is where the journey has begun. This is what has shaped their life to date. The woman who has had  six children with six different men. And each of her children taken into “care”. The successful business man who always has a lover whom visits regularly.  Whose wife pretends not to know and not to mind. These journeys are more like death than birth.

The biblical account of the Wise Men is only found in Matthew’s gospel. He places this visit at the end of his genealogies “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matt. 1:1) Matthew is telling his readers their history. As counsellors we don’t share your histories but  nonetheless draw on them in our work. (Unlike Athena who emerged fully armed from the skull of Zeus we have learned our histories the hard way with journeys that seem to have made the Magi’s travels look easy!) We share our patient’s journeys in many ways.We, to, have slept badly at times and have wondered where our journey will take us. To birth or to death?

My aim is to write more about Journeyings. Meanwhile I shall end with some Advent music. Enjoy, as they say!

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychotherapy, The Inner World, The unconscious, Uncategorized, Ways of Being

10 Miles to go

A friend and I completed a 100 mile cycle ride yesterday. It was hard work! But enjoyable-if you like that sort of  thing! We managed to achieve Gold medal standard in our age group by finishing in seven hours. We had not set out with any expectations of  doing anything more than completing the ride before sunset! The medals were a huge boost to tired legs and sore backsides. We climbed a total of 3,000 feet in those seven hours. And alternately cursed, smiled, wept depending on where we were at any given point in the ride.

The hardest part came after 90 miles. There was a sign proclaiming “10 miles to go.” We whooped with excitement. A mere 10 miles. No problem! A few minutes later my friend turned to me and said “You know what that means, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said. “It means we’ve still got another 40 minutes riding to do.” For a short time our euphoria vanished in the face of how much work was still left. We carried on pedalling and, eventually passed over Marlow bridge and in to the finishing area, got our times and medals and gave each other a High Five, grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats.

As a mental health nurse I was always taught that the most dangerous point in the recovery of someone who is depressed, is not the acute phase. Mostly they are too depressed to act out in any way at all. The crisis comes when they are getting better. I’d always taken this as axiomatic. A useful piece of clinical data when managing somebody who is depressed. That remains true.  Until yesterday, however, I had never really experienced that maxim first hand. We’d ridden 90 miles. We’d got up at six in the morning, loaded the bikes, parked the car, signed in and set off on the ride. We griped, complained smiled etc. Then we  got to the “almost there” mark and nearly threw our bikes away and called a taxi .I’m pleased we didn’t. (And  “Thank You”to all my friends who sent “Bravo” messages.They are much appreciated.

Whilst being ill is horrible, one knows where one is in a strange way. Hair falling out? Blame the chemo. Depressed. Blame the divorce. Dropping things? Blame the arthritis. One gains much justified support and sympathy an acute phase. The problems begin with recovery. One’s life is no longer in immediate danger. The expectation is that one can resume normal duties-albeit in a graded way. It is this stage that is the most demanding. Having come so far, that final 10 miles seems so near yet so far. Small wonder that this is the danger phase in so many illnesses. As it was on our ride. Hope had been kindled followed by the almost overwhelming realisation of how much effort was still required of us.

Once more I’ve had practice teach me the real meaning of theory. But on reflection, I’m still pleased they told us we only had another 10 miles left. If only because it made the 5 mile marker all the sweeter.


10 miles to go

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Uncategorized, Ways of Being

The Rose upon the Rood of Time or The God of Small Things

rose of timeW.B.Yeats wrote a poem “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” which has in it the lines

“Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,

I find under the boughs of love and hate,

In all poor foolish things that live a day,

Eternal beauty wandering on her way.”

What reminded me of this poem were my thoughts about leaving God. In my teens and twenties I was immersed in Charismatic Christianity. One of the many core ideas here was that one’s life was ruled by God. All that happened was either expressly willed by God or could be used by Him to shape one’s Christian life. This idea is epitomised in St.Paul’s teaching as, for example in the verse in Romans “All things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28) or as another translation puts it :”God works all things together for good for those who love Him.” It’s a comforting doctrine that no matter what may occur in my life, God can and will use it for my benefit. This doctrine neatly “solves” one aspect of the problem of Evil .Whilst God may not have explicitly  have caused an earthquake or a terrorist bomb or a car crash, He nonetheless will take these events and help us find some good in them. (Which is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough. It is an unsatisfactory theodicy.) Take away an all purposing God and what is one left with? For me, one is left with seeing eternal beauty in all poor foolish things that live a day. Or to use Arundhati Roy’s phrase, one is left with the God of Small Things.

I remember once talking to a chaplain at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. He was saying how many parents ask “Why did this happen?” in relation to a child who may have died. He said that he often replied that the meaning is that there is no meaning. I interpret this as a way of saying,”The only meaning in your child’s death is the meaning you are able to give it. That is the last gift you can give your child. To shape some meaning out of the loss.” I think this holds true for all loss. We have the power to give shape, form and meaning to the events and circumstances of our lives. We may choose to see events as being ordained by a deity even if we cannot understand why this should be the case. (“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”was Job’s response to his suffering). Or we find a more mundane way of giving meaning. We set up a charity; we run marathons; we train as counsellors; there are innumerable ways in which we can give meaning to Life. To find eternal beauty wandering on her way. This way of Being is both harder and easier than believing in an omnipotent divine Father. It means grappling with very hard, difficult questions that risk swamping us. These questions are all the harder because we are thrown back on our own resources .We can no longer say, “This is the will of God” and hope that somehow an answer will be forthcoming. We are left to ourselves and to find eternal beauty where we may. Whilst that is hard I still prefer it to an idea that a mystical being is somehow in charge of my destiny.



I recently began a drawing class. I’d often wondered if I had any latent ability to draw. J still don’t know the answer to this question since my artistic career was short lived. I stayed for one session and decided that this was not for me. Or, that this way of leaning did not work for me. We spent 15 minutes playing with pencils. Learning the difference between H and B leads. Soft and hard. Then we were given a landscape to fill in, using different techniques. Cross hatching; herringbone; vertical over horizontal. All of which were present in a Van Gogh sketch we were shown. “I can see all those  techniques in Van Gogh’s picture.” our tutor quipped brightly. (I am not, i discovered, any Van Gogh.)

I struggled for about 10 minutes trying to fill in my landscape with these styles. At the end of it  I looked at it and thought  that all I had done was to take something I had admired and spoilt it. My scribblings added nothing the landscape we had been given. I talked about this experience with somebody recently. “If you truly want to draw something, sit down and look at it until you understand it.” I haven’t used this advice because I’m not sure how much I want to learn to draw. But it rang true in my experience as a counsellor. If I want to understand somebody, I have to spend the time just seeing them. Observing them. Looking at them. It’s an intimate experience. And a scary one. For both me and my patient.

Scary for my patient because I am made into God who sees all and understands all. Scary for me because there is a danger of believing this fantasy. Scary, too, because as much I see my patients-or try to- so I am also seen. Much as I try to become the classic Freudian blank screen, “I” inevitably intrude.

There is a tension in this being seen. For some people it is comforting to have me make an observation about them that has truth in it. To comment that they seem lonely today. Or that I am puzzled about where they are right now.  Others find it intrusive and persecutory. For some counselling becomes a game of Hide and Seek. I am and am not expected of find my patient. If I fail to find them, there is a pyrrhic victory. They have successfully avoided being found. But the rage and fury that follow can be overwhelming. Trying to comment on this process is itself fraught with the same  difficulties.

The other aspect of  being seen is that it is a reminder of our separateness. The lover who gazes into her beloved’s eyes and melts. The baby who looks up at his mother. These are bitter sweet experiences because they simultaneously remind us of our joinedness and our separateness.

My next blog will explore this tension further.

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

I see you

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

True Names

I read this piece recently and it stayed with me.

“Elodin reached in to his pocket and pulled out a river stone, smooth and dark. ‘Describe the precise shape of this. Tell me of the weight and pressure that forged it from sand and sediment. Tell me how the light reflects from it. Tell me how the world pulls at the mass of it, how the wind cups it as it moves through the air. Tell me how the traces of its iron will feel the calling of a loden-stone. All of these things and a hundred thousand more make up the name of this stone.’ He held it out to us at arm’s length. ‘This single, simple stone.'” (The Wise Man’s Fear  by Patrick Rothfuss)

It seems to me that Rothfuss has captured the essence of good counselling here. At one level there is a patient with a particular difficulty sitting in front of me. That difficulty might be called Anxiety or Depression or Anger. That represents the stone. My job as a counsellor is to get beyond the obvious label and think with my patient about all the influences that have gone to create this problem. A divorce; an alcoholic parent; a psychotic parent; a violent father; an unsatisfactory marriage. The list is endless. As are the ways in which each element has shaped my patient. And the choices they have made as a consequence of these influences. (All of which makes the argument that therapy should be a long-term process. Not time limited  to 10 sessions with a CD as back up.)

This attention to detail is one of the many things that I enjoy as a practitioner. I have the luxury of 50 minutes each week to invite my patient to stop for a minute and consider what they’ve just said. To go back to a mood  or a way of sitting or a feeling in the room.I long ago worked out that I couldn’t save the world. I don’t know what to do about ISIS. I don’t know how to stop global warming continuing. I can’t eradicate poverty. (The list of “I can’ts grows longer each year-or so  it seems to me!) But I can be the best counsellor I know how to be for the person sitting in front of me. I am interested in the weight and pressure that forged them. About how the world pulls at them. At how the light reflects from them. This I can do. True Names

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Anger and anxiety

I’ve needed to do quite a lot of thinking recently about anxiety and anger, which I had always seen as discreet phenomena. My patients tell me otherwise so it seems wise to do some reading and thinking. This blog is a summary of my thoughts so far. Anxiety, angst, anguish and anger all have a common root, the Latin angere meaning to choke, dread, panic, anguish. These certainly seem to describe the feelings we associate with both anger and anxiety.

This is fine as a piece of semantics. I always like finding the root meaning of a word. It sheds light on what gave rise to the word but does it do anything more? In this case I think it does. Angere conveys the sense of destruction. Choking, panic, dread make me think of drowning or any experience that threatens to destroy me and end my life. (People who talk about having a panic attack will say they thought they were going to die.)

A psychoanalytic understanding of anxiety is given by Charles Rycroft as being to ensure that primary anxiety is never experienced. And this in turn is described as “the emotion which accompanies the dissolution of the ego.” Or psychic death. Who would not want to avoid that? (Think of how we feel when we’ve had a near miss in a car or as a pedestrian.Relief is quickly replaced with fury. Both are a reaction to near death.) In clinical terms anger and anxiety are both responses to threat – the well-known Fight or Flight reaction which is much more difficult when the threat arises from within us rather than from an external threat. Which is why those who are permanently anxious or angry can be so hard to be with for any length of time, because they project their fears into those around them. We become the enemy. So, the wife who is experienced as always critical may stand for her husband’s critical super ego (that voice in our heads that is forever running us down, telling us how stupid we are etc.) The wife who is always angry at her  family may very well be following the same path. Putting her own insecurities into others so they become someones else’s problem-not  hers. What is being projected is the internal battle raging in that individual’s psyche. Their own fear of being overwhelmed by their feelings are transformed into feelings of being attacked by outside forces. Hence racism, sexism, homophobia and the like.

The more difficult part is what to do about these thoughts and feelings. Cognitive Behavioural therapy is increasingly popular. This teaches us how to manage our thoughts and feelings. So, in the face of anxiety we might teach simple relaxation techniques. Anger might well be “managed” in a similar way. Google “Anger Management” and there will be pages of techniques, courses, exercises and the like. My own approach is to try to understand the links between anger and anxiety. To help my patient see who or what  is the source of their distress.Frequently something was missing in their experience of growing up. Parents who were preoccupied with their own concerns. Parents who, somehow, failed to pick up the messages their child was giving them about their needs. (Which is not to blame parents or criticise their parenting skills. Simply to observe that there can be a mismatch between what a child might need and what a parent is able to give.)

Medication has its place. Prozac is so popular because it works! We get relief from the misery of depression, anxiety and anger. Which in turn can give us the necessary energy to do the talking therapy that will allow us to change and grow.The actress Amanda Seyfried put it succinctly “Anxiety, it just stops your life.” (Replace “anxiety” with anger, depression, or something similar. It still works.)

Anxiety and anger