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

Containment 3

Two people suggested that the last two blogs about containment needed a third one to bring them together. This is an attempt doing that. Years ago we used to sing a lovely hymn, “Brother, let me be your servant” it ran thus

“Brother, let me be your servant

Let me be as Christ to you…

I will hold the Christ light for you

In the night-time of your fear.”

It was usually sung for someone who was finding life particularly difficult or painful. A kind of lullaby between the singers and the soothed. It offered a promise of containment. “We can’t take away your pain, but we will do our best not to leave you alone with it.” (A lovely thought albeit one that cannot be totally fulfilled. At some point we are all left alone in the night-time of our fear.) The most we can hope is that the night-time doesn’t last too long. And that somebody is there with us in the morning.

Effective containment is a balance. The child who is frightened of the monster under the bed can only share its parents’ bed for so long. At some point the child has to go back and look under the bed and face the monster. That way they learn to self care. Then, when the next child is scared the monster, they can comfort them.

I remember doing a role play in a workshop. I was playing a husband whose wife of 40 years had just been told that she had six months to live. The other participant was being a counsellor. They listened to me as I expressed my grief, my fury, my fear.  Nodded and made empathic noises. Then said “I understand how you feel.” At this point I nearly had to be forcibly restrained. How could this counsellor who was at least 30 years my junior begin to understand? How dare she have the temerity to say that to me? What did she know of grief, or loss, or suffering? Whether I was in role or out of it, I was furious. She looked ashen, having suffered an unexpected emotional mugging.  What she needed to have done was to demonstrate that she understood. And to show me what it was that she understood. So “You must be feeling very frightened right now” might have helped.  Or even “How are you both feeling at the moment?” I make a point of never telling my patients “I understand.” Because I probably don’t! I’ll ask how they feel. I’ll suggest how I think they’re feeling. I’ll ask “How does that make you feel?” But I won’t tell them I understand.

How does this relate to the previous pieces? My hope is that it highlights that good containment holds both the Light and the Darkness. The Love and the Hate.  When I was lecturing I worried about those students who were devoutly Evangelical. I interviewed one candidate, asking her for her responses to being threatened, verbally abused and generally intimated by a patient who might be severely psychotic. Her response “I’d let the love of Jesus flow into him” worried me. Here was someone who was unable to know her own hatred. This put her at risk. And her colleagues. We did not offer her a place.

I previously quoted Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Containment allows these two to live together and be acknowledged equally. The psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott wrote “What is a normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No, that is not what he is like. The normal chid, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle and to appropriate… At the start he absolutely needs to live in a circle of love and strength if he is not to be too fearful of his own thoughts and… imaginings…”  (Winnicott, Deprivation and Delinquency)

This is containment. This is care. This is nurture. The rest is just nonsense.

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Counselling, Dragons, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Narratives, Psychosis, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Containment 1

I’ve just had a short stay in hospital for knee replacement surgery. It’s  a disconcertingly quick process, once you’re admitted. I was admitted on Thursday and discharged home by the Sunday. Out with the old and in with the new. Literally. This was my third hospital visit over several years and the first one that was planned. The previous two had been crisis admissions. I don’t do well as a  patient – particularly as one who has been a nurse for most of his professional life. My overall recollection of my two previous admissions was of a gap between “hard” medical skills and the “soft” nursing ones. Between  the “male” skills of surgery and the “female” roles of nursing. I remember one nurse observing of me (to me) that “we’re all ill in our own way.” She was right. I’m not good as a patient. I’m far too impatient and independently minded. I hate being stuck in bed. I fear a loss of autonomy. My defence against existential anxiety is to become difficult and demanding. It’s a way of reminding myself – and everyone else –  that I will deal with this situation in my own terms. And if those terms don’t accord with your terms, well, so be it. Which means I’m never going to be “that nice man in bed 12”.

This admission was a markedly better experience. In part because I’d had a lot of time to prepare myself. I had a list of coping strategies. Chief of which was “Be nice to the nurses”! I was and it paid off. I could relax and allow myself to be cared for. Which created a virtuous therapeutic circle. I was content and contained.

The image at the top of this blog gave me a lot to think about. I Googled “Containment” expecting to find images of holding. A mother feeding her baby. A parent and child walking hand in hand.  Holding and held.  Instead I found a number of images like the one I chose. I thought about using another gentler image but opted to stay with the violent image that Google gave me. I wondered why? Partly on the basis of my two previous admissions. Partly on my own experience of being in analysis and also of my clinical work as a nurse and a therapist.

Psychiatric nurses don’t get many boxes of chocolates from grateful patients. In 25 years I got one box! I was reminded of this when I left Papworth hospital. I dutifully brought a box of chocolates. “Oh. Chocolates. How nice.” was the distinctly lackluster response. “I’ll put them with the rest.” It was a fair response. I was expressing my hate not my love.

“Damn”, I thought, “nice Adult nurses always get nice chocolates from grateful patients.” In  Mental Health this was not the way of things. We didn’t get “nice” patients nor did we expect to be “nice”. We expected to keep our patients safe. If that meant restraining them and forcibly medicating them, well then that was what we did. We contained them.

My two previous admissions highlighted this difference. The nurses expected to be liked. Why wouldn’t they? They were there to make us better and we were supposed to be suitably appreciative. So why wasn’t I being appreciative? I was being well looked after. My medication arrived on time and when I needed it. I was constantly monitored by a machine that bleeped if I even sneezed. I had drains, catheters, fluids and drips. All conspiring to keep me alive. So why my ingratitude? Mostly because I wasn’t contained. Nobody was asking me how I felt about having nearly died. Nobody asked me why I wasn’t eating or drinking enough. I was simply put on a fluid balance chart.

So the picture above sums up my first two experiences, My rage, fear, hatred couldn’t be borne. So I felt gagged. And murderously angry. Which I evidently conveyed. Powerfully.

 

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Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Cathedrals

 

I came across this comment by the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill. She is writing about beauty:

“So, too, all who are sensitive to beauty know the almost agonising sense of revelation its sudden impact brings – the abrupt disclosure of the  mountain summit, the wild cherry tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto, witnessing to another beauty beyond sense… when we take it seriously, it suggests that we are essentially spiritual as well as natural creatures.” (The Spiritual Life)

I find myself uncomfortable with this idea. I acknowledge the sense of the numinous that we meet at times and places. I remember being moved to tears the first time I saw Rodin’s sculpture of the Prodigal Son. But what moved me was its humanity. Nothing to do with the Divine. I can listen to a great concerto, see a moving play, look at a landscape and be  moved. And be challenged to think about my life, its purpose and meaning. But I do not necessarily intuit the Divine in this.

Speaking of religion, Freud noted that:

“The psychoanalysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the God of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”

I find Underhill’s view one that demeans humanity and our creativity. I dislike the gothic cathedrals that, in my experience, seek to dominate man and propagate a view that reduces us to nothingness in the face of the grandeur of the Divine. I have no wish to be involved with a God who subjugates humanity. Following Freud, one has to wonder at the forces and influences that shaped the  inner world of the architects of the buildings. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote  “I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.”    For the most part I disagree.  There are cathedrals that inspire. Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral is one. Its light, its space and potential offer me a feeling of celebration and creativity. I always  want to dance when I’m there. Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona has a similar impact.

My point here is not to criticise gothic cathedrals per se. Coleridge saw them as “infinity made imaginable”. Perhaps he was right. For me, I prefer the image of an exalted father to be one of a father who can sing and dance with his children and teach them to celebrate life. I do not want to exalt a father who is remote, distant and intimidating.

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Borderline States, Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Narratives, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Spiderman meets Allah

 

I recently watched the latest Spiderman film Homecoming. I was slightly disappointed by it. I enjoyed the Toby McGuire versions. I think because he portrayed more of the conflict he felt about being Spiderman. It seems to me that Tom Holland plays it as a teenager having huge fun as Spiderman but not really having to work overmuch about the implications of this role. But i’m a counsellor versed in psychoanalytic theory, so I may be expecting too much from the film! Although having so said, “Homecoming” does give a good portrayal of Peter Parker’s oedipal conflict .Tony Stark is an excellent father figure whom the young Spiderman has to deal with.

The piece of dialogue that struck me forcibly is this one. Peter wants his Spiderman suit back from Tony Stark who has confiscated it. (Castration anxiety anyone?)

Spiderman “I’m nothing without that suit.”

Tony Stark “If you’re nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it.”

(There is a lovely irony here since Tony Stark invented IronMan as his superhero alter ego. He needs his Ironman suit as much as Peter Parker but is unable or unwilling to recognise this need.)

I watched Homecoming around the time of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. The question of “suits” came to mind. As Spiderman Peter Parker can achieve all sorts of things that he cannot do as an ordinary adolescent. He needs to become Spiderman. (There are important questions here about potency and identity.) Like so many other people I wondered how a person can ram a truck into a group of people enjoying an evening out. (And at the risk of death by parenthesis, there are issues of envy here. How dare you be enjoying yourself when I’m not!) Could plain Mouassa Oukabir have driven his car into a group of people, aiming to kill as many as possible. Perhaps not. But as a disciple of a particular Iman, Abdelbaki Es Satty, Oukabir had a suit to wear. Like Peter Parker, it gave him an identity as a perverse “Superhero.” Presumably his version of Islam gave Es Satty a similar kind of suit.

In the closing scenes of Homecoming Peter is offered a brand new Spiderman suit, which he refuses, much to Tony Stark’s bemusement. “That was a test, right?”asks Peter. “Of course”replies Stark. So Peter Parker goes back to  being your average, friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. It seems he has found a way to resolve some of the issues he has with Tony Stark. And, more importantly, with himself. One wishes that “radical Islam” and all its kind could make a similar resolution.

 

 

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

Certainty

There was  a discussion recently on Facebook about a newly found translation of the KJV bible. The academic involved claimed that this new manuscript showed how much of the text had been edited to support particular political doctrines and ideas. The discussion that followed was, inevitably, about the  nature of biblical authority. Is it a case of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? Or a case of  “The words of God in the words of man”? The discussion lasted a few days  before moving on to something else. Probably a discussion about giant pandas or the Amazon rain forest.  At the same time a Quaker friend wrote a piece about certainty and religious faith.  She had disagreed with somebody who had wanted it to be the case that faith banished doubt. My friend’s point was that this was not the purpose of faith. Its task is to provide a framework to think about life and its vicissitudes, not to provide an answer to every conundrum. It is a familiar and important argument.

In his paper “Mourning and Melancholia” Freud commented that in mourning what was important was not whom someone had lost, but what. This thought has stayed with me. I spent my 20’s and 30’s  defining myself as Christian, albeit in varying ways – but mostly Evangelical. (That wish for certainty was pervasive.) Then I began psychotherapy and allowed myself to look behind some of my locked doors. What did I think about Jesus, the Church, Evangelicalism, things Charismatic etc? I discovered that I thought all sorts of things that I hadn’t allowed myself to think! Now in my 60’s I am happily agnostic as far as religious faith is concerned. I’m probably agnostic about many things. It’s a position I feel very comfortable with. It’s particularly helpful as a counsellor where I spend much of my time simply holding someone in my mind. I choose to suspend judgement about almost everything. One of my patients commented,”This feels so weird. It’s the only place where I don’t have to defend what I say or think. You’re just interested in the fact that I do think such and such.” My experience of therapy from both sides of the couch is that this is the only stance one can take. The only certainty is that there is no certainty, which makes this work so rich and rewarding. On a good day. On a bad day a small part of me longs to be back in my warm fundamentalist womb being effortlessly nourished by a divine umbilical cord. But we are not meant to spend our lives in any kind of womb. We are meant to be outside exploring and discovering. Endlessly asking “Why”

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Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Cinderella continues

I wanted to take my musings on the Cinderella a bit further and look at the story in terms  of Freud’s paper “Mourning and Melancholia”. (These days we talk about depression, not melancholia. It is the same thing.) I started by thinking that Cinderella was depressed. The story well describes the feelings attached to depression. A sense of impoverishment (sitting in dirty clothes in the ashes).  A feeling of being persecuted ( her step family hate her). Feelings that any task is impossible,( the tasks set her by her step family).  An idea that everyone else is much better off than oneself ( her step sisters can go to the Ball but she cannot).  Then I began to think a bit more deeply. Cinderella is Mourning .Her mother has died and her father has, effectively, abandoned her. But despite all this, she can still have Hope. She can dream that she could, somehow, go to the Ball. She can believe that she  is worthy.This self belief is more than justified when the Prince falls in love with her. It is also her self belief that allows to try on the glass slipper. These are not the actions of a woman who is depressed. The depressive would have decided that nothing was ever going to be good again. That the ashes in which she sat were all she deserved and all she could expect. She would not have gone to the ball and certainly would not have tried on the slipper. What was the point? She was ugly inside and outside.

This, of course, is one of the difficulties with depression. And the difference between Mourning and Melancholia. Freud puts it like this “In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty. In melancholia it is the ego itself.” Cinderella’s mourning for her dead mother eventually allows her to begin to hope. (Or this is so in the Perrault version.) From a place of mourning she can begin to heal. Things are transformed. A pumpkin becomes a Carriage. Mice become Horses. A rat morphs into a Coachman and a lizard becomes a Footman. The things around her that are ordinary and commonplace become a source of pleasure and optimism. Not only for Cinderella but also for the Prince. And, by implication, for a new dynasty since Princes and Princesses always continue a Royal line and hopefully, rule well and wisely.

The picture at the top of this blog is Durer’s “Melancholia”. In it the central figure is surrounded by all the riches of the world but is unable to take any comfort from them. Durer obviously had a keen understanding of Depression! It is one  of the challenges of working with someone who is depressed. Along with the sadness, there is frequently a profound rage. (An extreme example of this rage being acted out is in suicide, which, amongst other things, is an attack on those around. Born out of a fury.)

Cinderella was sad. Understandably. But she had enough good things inside her to allow her to grow. To hold on to Hope. She could accept her sadness and mourn the things she had lost. But she did not need to destroy herself in the process.

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Narratives, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Uncategorized, Ways of Being

Cinderella

For Leslie Ellis who runs the best Creative Writing class in the World.

 

For some time now I’ve been thinking about the Cinderella story, triggered by a comment once again by my Creative Writing tutor who makes numerous fascinating comments about all manner of things. These pieces have been rumbling around in my brain for several weeks and have taken me in to the Oedipus complex and its partner, the Electra complex. Then into both Freud and Jung who might represent the King and the Prince in the Cinderella story. Add Melanie Klein and we recreate the family of the story.

Broadly speaking the child gains a sense of their identity, self-worth and desirability from their relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. The story tells us that Cinderella’s father fails to help her achieve this because he takes a new wife whom he needs to appease. Thus his own daughter is neglected in favour of his step daughters. His own needs for  love and approval outweigh his duty to his own daughter.  A double wound for Cinderella who loses her father twice over. Once to his own rather empty inner world and, secondarily, she  looses him to her step mother and family.From being a much-loved and prized child Cinderella is now reduced to the status of a scullery maid. In theory she might have survived this assault if she had some guarantee of her father’s love for her. Sadly she gets no such message and takes on internally swell as externally the role of ashes. The detritus left over from a fire, whose warmth is denied to Cinderella but enjoyed by the rest of her family. In every possible way she is denied c

omfort and reminded of her low value and status.(As we see, she does find a spark of warmth in side herself.)

Her redemption comes from her ability to dream of something different. She can at least dream of going to the Ball. Over the years I have worked with many patients, often women, who see themselves as Cinderellas. But who have lost even the ability to dream of something better.Let alone to make it to the Ball. For these women, often the victim of violence and abuse, hope is too painful. So they settle for an existence in a twilight zone. Men come and go; often abuse them; get them pregnant and leave. Sometimes she struggles on for the sake of the children-  who all too often end up repeating the same patterns of relationships. Sometimes, however, there has been just enough love and care from somebody to give them space to dream of a different future. A good marriage, an education, a healthy family, a career.  These women find their Prince and he finds  his Princess. But to allow oneself to dream is a risky business.All too often step sisters and their ilk conspire to make sure that Cinders knows her place. It is the work of nurses, therapists and counsellors to become an enabling Fairy Godmother who from the commonplace world of pumpkins and the like enable Cinders to transform into Cinderella. 

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