Hope, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Religion, Schizophrenia, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

The enemy within?

Like so many others I’ve watched with concern Donald Trump’s attempt to ban certain groups from entering America. His argument is that they are  a threat to national security. I suspect that America is quite capable of producing home-grown terrorists without importing them. Psychologically his attitude is fascinating – albeit dangerous.


In psychoanalysis there is the idea of two states of mind in which we live. Technically called the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. In the paranoid-schizoid position the infant has two mummies. The good mummy who comes when called, feeds me when I’m hungry, changes me when I’m wet and so on. I love this mummy.  Then there is the bad mummy. She leaves me too long, does not instantly respond to my needs and so forth. I hate this mummy. Eventually the child comes to recognise that the two mummies are one person. The bad mother is also the good mother. And vice versa. The child is faced with a problem. How to live with its responses to this mother. How do I reconcile my love of the good mother with my hatred of the bad one? What does this say about me? I have to live with my capacity for hatred as much as I live with my capacity for love. (R.D.Laing explored this tension brilliantly in his book “Knots”.) It is the problem Juliet faces in Romeo and Juliet when she falls in love with Romeo and laments that her only love has sprung from here only hate. Bringing these two positions together is what we call the depressive position. It takes courage to live in this place.

I think we are seeing something similar being played out with the rise of far Right political groups. The enemy is the immigrant who is taking our jobs, stealing our benefits and generally being parasitical. We then go to our hospital and are grateful to the Pakistani doctor who cares for us. The African   nurses who look after us. The Chinese Radiographer who scans our bones. These are good people! The bad ones are the other kind. (Whoever they may be.)

We separate good “mothers” from “bad” ones. Why? Because to recognise the split within ourselves would be too painful. We would be forced to acknowledge our own ambivalences. We see this splitting off in men who murder prostitutes. In women who will allow a dangerous partner to look after her children. In the killing of gay men by straight men who fear what they desire.And in the psychotic states of mind like schizophrenia where the denied part is heard as voices which can be disowned.)

It seems to me that this is Donald Trump’s agenda. In banning Muslims from coming to America he is attempting to banish split off parts of his psyche. And that of a segment of America. He can hate the poor, the needy , the vulnerable. In much the same way as some religious groups demand “modesty” from women. (If I lust after  a woman’s body, why is it that this is the woman’s fault? Why should she wear a burka and cover up all but her eyes? Why should some christian groups demand that wives are submissive in all things to their husbands?) In Trump’s terms, we might wonder what parts of himself he is putting into the poor etc-from whichever country they come. I suspect from his bombast that he cannot tolerate his own needy parts. His narcissism stemming from a profound insecurity. What makes him dangerous is, of course, that he has mobilised a part of America that feels dispossessed and unloved. Perhaps with some justification.  Brexit in the UK seems to me to demonstrate something similar.

As a counsellor, I have some idea about how I might work with a patient exhibiting these attitudes. Where does the hatred come from? What triggers the fearful self loathing? I would hope that, over time, we would build a strong enough relationship for my patient to let go of some of their fears. To come to a place where they could grow some self-love and nurture the parts of themselves that they so despise. (The despising coming from a fear of vulnerability and neediness)

But I am not a politician. Trump is not my patient. Nor are the Brexiteers.  Perhaps it is time for the clinicians and politicians to sit round the table together and share some insights. Then we could move the social narrative on from a split, paranoid-schizoid position to a more integrtated depressive position.



Aylesbury, Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Black dog- a postscript.

What started out as a creative writing exercise morphed into a Psychoanalytic shaggy dog story. I wanted to take an unexplained event and offer one kind of interpretation. ( I think I made the assumption that there was never an actual black dog. I suppose that gives away my underlying rationalism. That’s one of the many reasons that I left Fundamentalist Christianity behind.)

So. My black dog. My attempts at offering a psychological reading left me thinking about other “supernatural” stories. How to think about divine visitations. Virgin births, for example. Or burning bushes. Or the finger of God writing on stone tablets.( I’ll use biblical stories because that’s the tradition I know best.)

The tension between a faith interpretation of events and a psychological one is not new. Consider the nuns who had themselves walled in until they died of starvation. They saw this as evidence of their devotion to Christ. We might see it differently. Or Madame Guyon who ate her own faeces as evidence of her self abnegation.

In psychiatry there is a similar schism. The psychiatric saints and mystics see their experiences as evidence of breakthrough. A uniting with a more spiritual self. Others see hearing voices etc as evidence of psychosis. A breakdown.

So, black dogs, hauntings, angels and miracles. Divine intervention or psychological mechanisms? Or both, perhaps?black-dog




Aylesbury, Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

The Black Dog Understood

black-dogI hoped it might be interesting to write about my own responses to this story and my patient’s thoughts.

My first association was that this black dog stood guard over a long, dark entrance at the end of which stood something both desired and forbidden. The  idea of the vagina dentata the vagina with teeth or the vagina that bites. My patient desired the prize but was also forbidden by his own moral standards. He was a married man with two children. This precluded him from having an illicit liaison. Thus speaks the super ego, the inner policeman. But this was in conflict with his more basic instincts (the id) that says, simply. “I want it.”  What was he to do? He couldn’t say “Yes” and  didn’t want to say “No.” So he comes up with an ingenious answer. He sets up an impassable barrier in the form of a ferocious Black dog. (A lovely representation of his super ego.) This works very well up to a point. So long as the dog is in place, he is safe. But if the dog goes, then what will stop him from pursuing his desire for this woman? He needs the dog alive which may account for why he never tries to kill it. The problems begin when his friend apparently succeeds where he cannot.But more of his friend later.

The other association that came up for me was Freud’s notion of The Uncanny. Particularly his commentary on the idea of heimlich or homeliness. The central idea is that homeliness stands for warmth, security, safety, etc. But the shadow of this is that it suggests something hidden and private. So a faithful black dog may be a family pet protecting its owner. But  the shadow can turn this feature into something dangerous and unknown. A ghost or demon or some other paranormal being. So my patient sees the heimlich of his own two dogs. The Black dog is only an extension of his own dogs. The ghost dog, like his own, his there to protect and keep out intruders. (And here we are again back with that vagina dentata. Something that protects and defends its owner.)

So, these are my own brief thoughts and associations on this account of a haunting.There are a few more notes to come but that’s enough for one reading.

What do others make of this story? And of the supernatural in general?


Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Breaking up with God- the cracks appear

breaking-up with God


I heard myself today saying out loud to someone “I don’t believe in God”. Nothing particularly odd in that remark. Many, many people say the same every day. But for me it was an important statement. An acknowledgement  of where I am today and have been for quite a long while. (I love the cartoon by the Naked Pastor at the head of this blog. It sums up my experience.)

Let me give some of my religious history. I’ll begin with St.Paul. In his letter to the church in Philippi he sets out his Jewish pedigree. “… if anyone else thinks he has reasons to have confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin,a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:5 NIV)

Let me add my own religious CV. Born and raised an Anglican. Baptised and Confirmed. “Saved” at a Billy Graham Rally. Destined for the Priesthood (C of E) Read Theology and English at college. Taught R.E. Eventually joined a fundamentalist christian community (Or commune. Or cult. Depending on your point of view.) Here we had all things in common and met for prayers twice daily. (Trying to chant metrical psalms at 6:30 in the morning is overrated as an activity!)

I can add to that list that I have preached, prayed,prophesied. Spoken in tongues,fasted and cast out demons. I’ve also struggled to strip down a car engine,  milk cows and plant potatoes. Quite impressive, I think. I can trump many of my christian friends with that list. All they do is go to church on a Sunday and, possibly, once mid-week. Milksop christianity!

For many years I was a true believer. Quiet times, prayer meetings, long Sunday services. Very little conversation with my inner self .This conversation began when I went into therapy and had a space in which to Think. I worked out how much my religious beliefs were a defence against anxiety. It didn’t matter what happened to me, I could trust that it was all in God’s plan for me. Many highly disturbed psychiatric patients prefer being in a locked ward. The boundaries are very firm and very clear. The  patient feels very contained. I look back on my experience of Christian fundamentalism as serving a similar  purpose. It gave me clear and firm boundaries. A sense of containment. (Prayer as an anti-psychotic?)

So, therapy. I began here to articulate my reservations about Christianity. Or the version of it I had encountered. Like so many before me, I struggled with  the reality of suffering. All the standard objections rang true. If God is Benevolent, why does he let some people have utterly miserable lives? If he is omnipotent, why does he not intervene more often? And if none of these attributes are true, what right does he have to call himself God?  There are  limits to how much one can change the established definition of a word. Surely the word “God” has to have some definable limits. (Although three years of theology at college taught me that, like Alice, “words mean what I want them to mean. So God is Wholly Other, Holy Other, Numinous, Ground and source of my Being, Beingfulness, Spirit, Energy, Divine Energy. the list is endless! But for now  I’ll assume that most people’s idea of God is roughly the one they see in the Bible.)

So, I began to ask questions about my own beliefs. The clincher was working in an acute psychiatric admission ward in South London. I met some lovely people (the staff were pretty good as well!) There were alcoholics, drug users, manic-depressives, schizophrenics etc. Standard fare for this kind of place. And I liked them-mostly! I looked at their histories and found nothing in my religious vocabulary that could mean anything to them. If Wendy was manic, she loved me, hated me, feared me, wanted to have sex with me-all within the space of a minute. If John had been drinking he could be violent, abusive, obnoxious. A real pain! But when Wendy was well, she was charming. When John was sober he was witty and fun. Both these two used their illness to defend against loss, sadness, anxiety, depression , fear. They needed a hug. A nurse who liked them and did not judge them. A ward they could come to for sanctuary. Good medication. (All of which we did our best to provide.) Jesus was not the Answer here. But if Jesus was not an answer here, where on earth or anywhere else could he be of use? Thus began the questions.




Borderline States, Counselling, Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Depression 1

This week I want to finish off the trilogy of Anxiety, Anger and Depression. (They are all part of the same family tree of emotions coming of the central trunk of fear of being annihilated.) Firstly, however, it will be helpful to define some terms.  The image on the left is of a mother breast feeding her baby. In psychoanalytic language the breast is known as an object and forms a central tenet in analytic thinking and writing. This gives rise to what is known as objects relations theory. The idea being that the mother’s breast stands for the whole process of nurturing, being fed, being cared about. The baby’s experience of the breast will include the smell of its mother, an awareness of her feelings, a sense of being the centre of the universe- albeit briefly! All these feelings are encapsulated in the word “object”. The theory goes on to suggest that this external breast- object- morphs into an inner representation. Thus the experience of being nurtured in real life is taken in by the infant as an inner experience. So the infant of an anxious mother will acquire a sense that the world is not a safe place. That he or she is also unsafe- that at any moment a disaster will occur which will overwhelm them. A child of a depressed mother may well acquire a sense of low self worth due, in part, to a mother who was too preoccupied with her own concerns to care about her baby.As the baby grows up it will find that it makes choices that seem to confirm their view of themselves.This can be expressed in all manner of ways .At the extreme end is suicidal depression running through to  paranoia and Manic depression. These are linked to the inner world and the individual’s relationships with its internalised objects.

Some examples:

Mike who finds it very difficult to hear anyone who does not agree with his view of things. (The fear being that everyone is intent on stopping him pursuing his dream career.)

Jane who cannot allow herself to be angry for fear that everyone will reject her if she shows he true feelings about something or someone.

Marie who is a compulsive carer who has to rescue anything or anyone in distress. Less from compassion and more from a complex mix of fear of her own anger and a terror of being unloveable.

In all these cases their actions and activity comes out of a difficult inner world. Their relationship with their inner objects is conflicted.  This makes the activity of living a  difficult one.

In part 2 of this blog I will focus on depression and one way of thinking about it.

brewast feeding mother

Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Religion, Schizophrenia, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Doing Evil or Being evil?

al-QaedaI was listening to a mother telling off her little girl this morning .

“You’re naughty” said the mother.

“No” said the daughter.

“Yes you are.” came the reply.

It’s hardly newsworthy. It gets repeated endless times a day in endless places. But I was struck by what the mother said. She didn’t tell her little girl that she was being naughty. But that she was naughty. I doubt it would have been appreciated if I had gone up to the couple and started a debate about semantics and about the connection between Being and Doing. But that was what I was left with. Is there a difference between Being and Doing? If I do bad things, am I a bad person? Similarly if I do good things, am I a good person? If I am a bad person, does this negate any good things I might do? And vice versa.

In health we use interesting language to describe different illnesses. I have measles. I am Bi-Polar. I have schizophrenia and I am schizophrenic. I am HIV positive. I have AIDs. At what point does an illness define us? We might ask the same question about many categories. Race. Gender. Religion. Political affiliation. One of the important parts of counselling is to bring into consciousness what is unconscious.(Much easier to say than to do!) I remember as a child laying in bed straining to see what I couldn’t see! (I was a very Postmodern child.) That’s a good analogy for psychoanalysis. Trying to see what we can’t see but know is there.

In Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper”  Chris Kyle is an American SEAL- speciality: a sniper- who does four tours of duty in Iraq. It is his duty and his obligation to God and the Flag. He has an alter ego. An Iraqi sniper called Mustafa. Much of the film is taken up with the conflict between these two men. Both kill the enemy. Both do it dispassionately and well. Both are fighting for their home. In the end Kyle wins. He kills Mustafa with an “impossible” shot. From here he returns home to his family and struggled to live a normal civilian life. Eventually he settles down only to be murdered by another Vet whom he is mentoring.

Eastwood asks the question about morality. What is the difference between the two men? Is one “Good” the other “Bad”? If so, which one is which?

We are currently remembering the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz. The word ‘Evil” is frequently used to describe these camps and those who worked there. But we also know that the guards enjoyed concerts given by the prisoners. We may assume that many of the guards had families whom they loved. They would buy presents for their children. They would celebrate anniversaries. Yet they could kill thousands with impunity. We must assume that those soldiers who were responsible for water boarding prisoners also had families. We don’t know if Jihadi John has a wife and children. But he will  have friends. People for whom he cares and who care about him.  Are these friendships any less valid than those of the people he has killed? Is Wagner’s music any less rich because he was profoundly anti semitic? Are the gifts that “terrorists” give their children any less because they come from “terrorists”?

Being, not doing…



Counselling, Dragons, Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

A head full of Nothing

iPhoto Library

My wife and I were out walking recently and we came across a large piece of rock coming out of the landscape. We looked at it. I wondered at how old it might be. Well, said my wife, some bits of granite are at least 30 million years old. She went on to give a short overview of how granite forms. I had already left the room, I have to confess. My question wasn’t actually the one I asked. My mind was already telling an imaginary audience the “real” history of this rock. How dwarves had sheltered under it when being persecuted by the goblin clans. How, on some nights when the moon was full, unicorns used to meet here to mate. How before men arrived, dragons used this stone for their gatherings. I began to construct the history of these creatures and their interactions with each other. My wife looked at me and smiled. “That’s the wrong answer isn’t it?”  “No. Just not the answer I meant.” I replied. We carried on our walk smiling since we both know about these kinds of conversations. My wife is an engineer and, therefore, of a practical mind. For her a piece of rock is a piece of rock. It can be carbon dated. It can be weighed. Measured. Tested in many ways. It has nothing to do with dwarves, goblins or dragons.

In schizophrenia there is a phenomenon known as Knights Move thinking. This is a way of describing psychotic thinking. For example “The next day when I’d be going out, you know, I took control, like uh, I put bleach on my hair in California.” (Wikipedia article on Derailment- thought disorder.) The idea is that the response to a question bears no obvious connection to the question itself. another way of describing this is a loosening of associations.There is a connection in the mind of the person answering .It is not the answer the questioner was asking for. but that doesn’t make it a wrong answer. I remember as a teenager finding maths, physics etc incomprehensible .What possible value did Ohms law have? Why does it matter what Pythagorus thought about triangles? My father came home one evening after a parents night at my school. He relayed the information that my Headmaster thought that my head was “full of nothing”. (It was not given as a compliment!) I’ve often thought about that comment. What he meant was that my mind was not full of Boyle’s law .Or someone’s clever theorem about Pi.My head was full of the story of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespearian tragedy .It was entranced by the story of Animal Farm and corruption. Not “nothing” in any way. Simply a different set of associations. Brian Patten wrote A Prose Poem in Definition of Itself .In it he has these lovely lines “On sighting mathematicians poetry should unhook the algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra…” Or we  should loosen our familiar associations and see where that takes us.

I wish you all a 2015 of new, loosened associations. (Now where did I put that algebra text-book…)