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?



Aylesbury, Counselling, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

A sense of place


This piece came out of an assignment for  my creative writing class. I thought at the time that I would probably use it as a blog. And so I am using it, albeit in modified form. Our assignment was to choose a familiar route and describe it in such a way that it conveyed a sense of place. As I wrote, the parallels between my short journey to work and the work itself seemed to merge.

My route to work takes about five minutes at most.  I leave my 300-year-old cottage in Aylesbury’s Old Town and cross Castle Street to the Mound. That’s my first bit of history. There is no castle nor ever has been but a version of the name remains. Home represents a past that has been adapted to the present but which still influences how we live today.We have low ceilings and windy stairs both of which set limits on what we do with the house. In my clinical work I constantly meet with the ways in which my patients have adapted their present to their past. Their internal structures set limits on what they have been able to build emotionally and intellectually. From home – which is, as Winnicott points out where were we start from – I go across the road, past the next landmarks to the next stage of my journey.  I cross  what is  known locally as the Mound, an open space enjoyed by many. The drinkers with their cans, the teenagers “just chillin’ “, the couples all but making love in the summer, the drug addicts at the top corner who leave their gear in the bushes for the local wildlife to find. (We have some of the happiest foxes for miles.) It’s sometimes very hard to know where to look – or not!

Without making the story overly allegorical, there is a link here to my work. How do people use their open spaces? Can they relax with a book? Or sit on the grass chatting with friends? Or is there a need to blot out the present with drugs, sex or drink? Anything to numb the pain of Being. These more squalid  aspects are juxtaposed with an attractive border of a variety of flowers and shrubs. This again seems to mirror so much of what I see in my counselling and have seen over the years in my nursing. Something alive and thriving sitting next to something deathly and squalid.
My short walk continues along a cobbled path which if I’m cycling I fondly imagine is the Paris-Roubaix ride, famous for its cobbled sections (known as the Hell of the North and challenging to ride). It doesn’t take long working as a counsellor to find out how quickly smooth tarmac gives way to bumps, lumps and cobbles. As I continue I can see in front of me the nursery that began as a church. Childcare obviously pays better than God. Sometimes I see the children having their playtime, their noses pushed through the railings. (Another useful image for my work which so often moves through time. We begin with the remembered – or forgotten past – and on to childhood memories and recollections. Of parents who were sufficiently or insufficiently present or absent. Of being popular or unpopular at school.)
After the Hell of the North life gets easier. It’s tarmac all the way down to the main road. I turn left at the bottom past another terrace of new houses built, I guess, in the late 1990’s. I see today that one them has just been Let. (I hadn’t realised it was for Let in the first place.) I don’t much like these properties. They are soulless. “Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” I go left up the hill, passing a mixture of old and new Aylesbury. The first new development is a block of “Luxurious New One and Two Bedroom Apartments.” situated in what was an office block. I was amazed when the work began. I couldn’t see how this building could possibly house people. I still don’t. But they will sell quickly enough. As so often, I’m ambivalent about this development. I’m pleased that homes are being made available but wonder about the kind  of  life that they will engender. I doubt there is room for children in these flats. Having family and friends to stay in a one bedroom flat might prove a challenge. As so often the environment shapes much of the life that goes on in it.
I carry on up the hill to work, passing Morrison’s on my right with its very convenient car park. I always tell my patients to leave their cars here. (I hope they at least buy a can of beans.  Just as a token “Thank You”. Maybe I should offer the store a donation. But I doubt they need it.) As I go up, I pass our local OCD lady with her rituals. She takes a certain number of steps then stops. She crosses yellow lines carefully, not treading on them. She often spends time looking for her keys which she has dropped down a drain. Several times a week. (A generous friend once spent 20 minutes trying to retrieve her keys before realising that she had not lost them at all. This was part of her OCD. He didn’t volunteer again.)
I carry on the few hundred yards more, passing offices, one or two grand houses, solicitors, and an engineering company. Then I’m at work. I key in my passcode and go into the Quaker Meeting house where I have my counselling room, where I repeat emotionally the physical journey I’ve just made. What has changed in my patient’s world since we last met? What memories did our last session evoke? What new developments have received planing permission?Monk copying


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

Man or Machine?

I was speaking recently with one of my patients. They were describing their relationship with their parents in sad tones. “What about this relationship here?” I asked. “What do you mean?” they responded.

“Well, there’s a relationship here between you and me” I ventured.

“No there’s not. This isn’t a relationship. Relationships are about love and care and things. You’re my counsellor. There isn’t a relationship.”

I was tempted to launch into a lecture about the Presenting Past and its relationship to Transference and Projective Identification- but thought this probably wouldn’t help the work. So I asked instead how they did see the “relationship” between us. My patient wasn’t sure. I suggested that they saw me as a psychological “Speak your weight machine.” They put in a question or a problem and out comes an answer, with no sense that I might be touched by their question. Or curious. Or puzzled.Their is no therapeutic work without a relationship between the therapist and the patient. The nature of that relationship is always deeply informative and at the core of how I work.

The truth is that all my patients are in a relationship with me. They have found out my details, looked at my website, possibly read my blogs and , finally, met me. By which time they already have a fantasy about me and how we will work together. The relationship starts a long time before they come to me. This relationship will mirror all other relationships. Sometimes my patients ask about my health. I usually reply that I’m fine. Others come in and want to check out that I still like them. Then they can allow themselves to begin. Some come in a sit down quietly in their chair whilst others come in, lean forward and launch into a tirade against their family, their boss, their work, their life. One of my many tasks is to try and understand what’s happening today and what it might represent for both my patient and myself.

The roots of the word  “relationship” have the sense of a bringing back, restoring, association. All things that can be done alone but which make more sense when done with another person. (Which is why I dislike the idea of computerised “counselling”. It is at best a misnomer, at worst dangerous.This truly is “speak your weight” therapy. Input your problem now and the program will search its files for an answer that seems closest to your question. Please speak Now.I can imagine nothing further from the spirit of Freud, Jung and company. One does not have a relationship with a computer program.)

So, I shall continue to practice  therapy which makes the assumption that when two people meet, something dynamic happens. It’s called a Relationship.
Santa on 'I speak your weight' machine. Machine says 'Ho,ho,ho.'

Aylesbury, Borderline States, Counselling, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Who lives here 4- The future

If the last blog was the most difficult on e to write, this one feels much easier .It is the future. Which is unknown and unknowable. I can hope for a certain kind of future. I can save money. plan for old age. My children’s university fees. I can think about what I might cook for dinner tonight. But none of these is certain. My children might not go to university. We might go out to dinner. The banks could fail and my money disappear. My future is beyond my control. Aylesbury, or any other town, is not the same place as it was 50 years ago. Which does raise the obvious question about what defines Identity? Aylesbury hasn’t moved from being in Bucks. But all that is needed is for a bureaucracy to decide that it makes sense  for belong to another county for convenience and I am no longer in my home county. (The house where I spent my teenage years is about a mile from the border of Middlesex-on the Bucks side. I looked for an address in this area in a Bucks A to Z and could not find the street. I eventually found it in a Middlesex A to Z. I was furious! How dare “they” change my history. I grew up in Bucks, not Middlesex. Someone had re-written my past. Without my permission. )

This rewriting of history comes up time and again in therapy. A patient remembers a childhood incident in a certain way. Their parents have a completely different version of the same event. Whose version is “true”? A patient recalls one version of their mother. On closer inspection this is an internal mother who is not the same as the flesh and blood mother. (The internal mother is far more powerful than the flesh and blood one.) The work in therapy has been to understand how the historical events shape the present. Which in turn shapes the future. My patient who felt abandoned at an early age has gone on to make relationships with men who in their turn abandon her. Her future will, hopefully, be different as a consequence of coming into therapy.

What have these  musings to do with a picture of Aylesbury’s new theatre? The theatre is the place of magic. Make believe. Fantasy. Dreams. Anything becomes possible here. I can relive my teenage years with a tribute band. I can be moved by a play about Argentina. I can hear a piece by Beethoven and go where his music takes me. All without leaving Aylesbury! Prospero, in The Tempest, comments that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…” My future is such stuff as dreams are made on. As is my past and my present.

I began this series of blogs by asking “Who  lives here?” I could have asked “Whose town is it anyway?” One answer is that it is the Past’s; the Present’s and the Future’s. Every time i leave my house I encounter each of these elements. My patients do the same. Each meeting they bring their past, present and future selves- sometimes consciously, often unconsciously. As Aylesbury belongs to all its elements, so do our inner towns. All of which are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The link is to one version of Prospero’s speech. Enjoy-as they say.

Aylesbury, Counselling, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Who lives here 2 : The past

This is a building in town that is being refurbished. It used to house an electrical goods store- T.V.s, mainly. In that incarnation it was thoroughly 2014. Big windows, displaying 90″ plasma TV’s that probably ran half a dozen household appliances whilst simultaneously recording 15 separate channels. The earlier store looks a more modest place, dating back to the 1960’s. when life was simpler or so we tell ourselves. Wikipedia observes that the 1960’s were hallowed by some  as a time of revolution in “social norms, cooking, music, drugs, dress, sexuality, formality and schooling” . For others the 60’s were a decade of  ” irresponsible excess, flamboyance, and the decay of social order.” One man’s golden age was another’s nightmare. I grew up in the 60’s and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of freedom and optimism. They shaped the way I think and work today. I tend to think that the 1960’s were only last year. Or perhaps four years ago. Certainly not 50 years ago. My inner world is not an accurate historian!

As a therapist I constantly see what Michael Jacobs has called the presenting past. A patient comes to see me and tells me how happy their childhood was. Yes, some difficult times but mostly a time of fun and pleasure with loving parents. I listen and ask a couple of questions, often about their marriage or their work. Suddenly tears form and painful memories surface. Childhood becomes a more complex story. Less idyllic. More shades and shadows. The past gets revisited and retold. Like the change of use for 1 Temple Street .The current facade hid a humbler version of itself. The large TV’s bespeak a different age. Different lifestyles. Not necessarily better or happier. But one reflecting current mores. No doubt the earlier shop was also built on a past version of the town which we no longer see. Except that in Aylesbury, one does see the past preserved. There remains a small part with houses dating back to 1600’s with all their quirky construction built for a different age.


This is what one sees in clinical work. A past is uncovered that served the needs of a different psychical time. The structures that a 10-year-old child puts in place are different to those of her adult self. Yet they still shape the present as seen in career choices. Or relationships. Or child rearing. The many facets that make up a life. The woman who is a “ball breaker”. The man who always wants to please people and covets approval. The company man who must have a Rolex to prove to himself how successful he has been. The individual who is terrified of doing something that they choose, not that has been chosen by someone else. These ways of Being all have their roots in early relationships .A mother who was seen as weak leads a  daughter to identify with a tough father. “Women are wimps. Men have all the fun.” This gets played out in terms of being known as the proverbial “ball breaker” or super bitch. It defends against vulnerability. Pleasing people is admirable but as a permanent way of life, it becomes exhausting. It also serves to deflect any possible “rebellion” or “naughtiness”. these behaviours running the risk of parental disapproval and censure. Which is unthinkable. Literally. A facade is built that covers up earlier structures. But under pressure these early structures break through the current frontage in the form of cracks, instabilities, gaps etc. The work of therapy is to look at these “breakdowns” and see why the current facade is showing signs of wear and tear. And how we understand the original structure. Why is there a door here? What can we see from that window? Where might those steps take us? Then we can see how the earlier structure fits with the current one. And make some decisions about what to keep hidden and what to reveal. It’s a slow but fascinating process. Therapy as archaeology. photo