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

3D Chess

I tweeted recently that counselling often feels like playing chess. With multiple boards in multiple dimensions. With multiple players. As a counsellor I spend a lot of time with my patients trying to work out which piece belongs to which game. (In which dimension!) Chaos theory tells us that a butterfly stamping its foot in Brazil can cause an earthquake in Cumbria.

Chess is often used as a metaphor for politics. If I make this move now, what will be the long term consequences for my game? If I sacrifice my Knight here, will that eventually allow me a strategic victory in 50 moves time. We call this board sight. A good player reaches a level where they can read a board intuitively. Or at least a certain number of moves ahead.  It’s a skill we all develop in our career, if we stay long enough. A good teacher develops a sense of what might help a child. A good manager learns to read their team. A nurse develops a sixth sense about their patient.

What is seen so often in my counselling room is a patient who has no broad sight. They move a piece almost randomly,  with little understanding of how this will affect the rest of their game. A Bishop is given up here, a Knight there.  This pattern gets repeated game after game. And they are unable to work out why this is happening.chess-board

A chess game is just a chess game. We can always decide to take up Scrabble or Table Tennis. It doesn’t matter much. Real life is more serious. When I assess a new patient their stories have a sadly familiar ring to them. The woman who has anxiety problems. Her mother was the same. As was her Grandmother. The man who is violent and has problems controlling his anger. His father was angry and violent. As was his Grandfather. People often come to me when they see the  pattern repeating in their children. It is not uncommon for a husband or wife to be the driving force in someone seeking counselling. Their behaviour in the family is causing problems and difficulties.

Any single chess game can be complicated enough. As well as challenging, demanding and enjoyable if one knows what is happening. Or at least knows how to think about thinking about.  When it is real life and the individual has no idea about the game they are involved in, this terror is compounded when it seems that another game somewhere else is affecting the current one. My grandfather’s game from eighty years ago can still affect the moves I make now,  particularly if he is still playing it out through and in me.  Messages about how women should behave, what a man should or should not be able to do, these are alive today, impacting on my life today. Suddenly I find myself moving my pawn to that square for no apparent reason. Regardless of the risk to that piece.
chess-boardIn my counselling  I work with people who have some awareness of their lack of board sight. What frightens me are the politicians who wish to use their power to play out a game they don’t know. We don’t know the impact of Brexit. I don’t know the  impact of the recent USA elections.  The increased popularity of the far Right feels like a chess game played with real people. Real people are and will be hurt.

I wonder if Theresa May and Donald Trump want an In-House therapist?




Labyrinths Part 2

ImageIn my last piece I wrote about the Milton Keynes labyrinth and made reference to the original labyrinth designed to keep the monstrous Minotaur imprisoned. A friend sent me a note saying that the Minotaur was more the result of some monstrous behaviour by his mother, Pasiphae. Some research showed that she was right. The Minotaur was the visible sign of his parents failures to behave well-or at least keep their promises to the gods.

The Minotaur was the result of his mother Pasiphae’s mating with a rather handsome white bull. (Her desire seems to have been difficult to contain, according to myth, since she had sex frequently with this  bull.) The other problem was that the bull was meant to be sacrificed to the gods as a thanksgiving for his father Minos’ support from Poseidon. The end result of this was that the Minotaur was born. Half bull, half human. (Wikipedia has this poignant comment about him “… he has no natural source of nourishment and thus devours men for sustenance”) To protect both the Minotaur and society his father has a giant labyrinth built to hold him. Eventually the Minotaur is killed by Theseus. (But in typical Greek myth style this is not a simple act of triumph.His father kills himself because Theseus forgets to send him  the proper signal to tell him that he is alive.)

There are enough themes in this story to write a library of commentaries. We could wonder about not keeping promises-particularly to our gods, whatever they might be. We could wonder about the cost of beauty. About the price of power and how one gains it and keeps it. (At some cost to oneself and others seems to be the message from this story.) We could wonder about the power of sexual desire-and how women may and may not express  their desire. The list of topics is long. But for this piece I wanted to think about the Minotaur himself.

 I find myself feeling very sorry for the Minotaur. The vision of him being trapped in a labyrinth with no means of escape I find a lonely one. (I have always had a fear of solitary confinement. My hope is that I would sink into a benign psychosis and hide there until I died.) His isolation- imprisonment- leaves him as much a victim as the seven young men and women who were sacrificed to him every seven years. He is punished for his parents mistakes. (His seven yearly victims are chosen by lots, which is both more and less kind.) 

As a psychiatric nurse and a counsellor I often see patients who are trapped in their own labyrinth. Sometimes it is a labyrinth of their own making, sometimes of others’ making. Invariably my patients are not the only ones who are in pain. Parents, husbands, wives are all affected. Sometimes it seems that the only way out of the labyrinth is through death. Sometimes a literal death.Sometimes a psychic death. Sometimes  physical death is seen as an answer to psychic death.

I remember one patient whom I looked after. He was in his mid twenties and had had two or three serious psychotic episodes. I used to visit him in his home, whee he lived with his mother. I saw him weekly for about six months before discharging him from my caseload. He was both too ill and too well. His delusional material was utterly entrenched but made limited impact on his day to day living. Thus I could “do” nothing for him. Eventually i discharged him- or, possibly- discharged myself from him. Not too long after I discharged him he killed himself at home. (I cried a great deal over his death. But many fewer tears than his mother.) For him physical death was preferable to life in a labyrinth from which he saw no escape.

I recently assessed another young man who was still at school. He was having behavioural problems at school as well as having a number of problems in his family. (In many ways he represented the conflicting wants and demands of his parents who found in him a convenient “problem” that had to be solved. I enjoyed meeting him and offered to work with him. Sadly he did not return. I presume he is still wandering in his and his family’s labyrinth.

The Milton Keynes Labyrinth was easy to  navigate. The route was clearly laid out. It was not possible to get lost in it. (And if all else failed one only had to follow the light of Milton Keynes to get home.) For so many of the people whom I have seen over the years, their labyrinth is not as easy to leave. They have no one to help them find a way out. Or they feel that they only meet Theseus’ who want to kill them. (I do wonder if, in the end, the Minotaur was grateful to Theseus?)