My eldest child sobbed in front of me, desperate for something I was refusing to give him. He felt an overwhelming need, and I wasn’t meeting it. Worse than that, he couldn’t understand why. He kept saying ‘why, mummy, why?’. And all I could do was repeat what now felt like a stupid and arbitrary rule of behaviour that had served its purpose a couple of years ago, but now felt cruel and out of place. And yet I felt trapped by it, and the more I said ‘no’, the more entrenched that ‘no’ became, and I felt at the same time both captive and dictator – bound by the rule, but exercising it on a whim. It was hurting him, and it was hurting me, and I felt powerless to kneel down, hug him, and end the power struggle we were caught up in.
As I sat opposite my therapist, in tears of desperation, I remembered that power struggle and felt as though I was trapped in it again, only on the other side. I felt an immense need for her to reach out to me, and I simply could not understand why she wouldn’t. It felt as though she was holding back; as if I was subject to her whim and at the mercy of whether or not she chose to respond to my needs. She seemed cruel; and I felt I was waiting, helplessly, for any words of comfort or encouragement that might come my way.
Of course, they did come my way; they had come. They had come during previous sessions and in the form of emails in between sessions. They had come in response to my own words, but did that make them any less an act of ‘reaching out’? They had come in the form of echoing others’ comforting words – but I wanted her words instead. When I couldn’t see a single positive thing about myself, I wanted to hear her tell me what she saw. And that ‘want’ became a feeling which felt like a ‘need’, and that need felt as though it had an inalienable right to be met. Who could refuse to meet the need of a seeming-child in distress? Who apart from someone cruel; or someone incapable, as I had been, of escaping the patterns of their own past, in order to respond differently in the present? I had written to her in an email a few days before: “You hold me in mind and you were really there for me tonight – but I still just want you to reach out to me”.
For two years, we slowly built a raft together. It was painstaking work. In the early days we would sometimes come back to find that the sea had washed our pile of wood away, or the wind had smashed the tiny platform against the rocks. Later on, we found that some of the rope we used to bind the branches would come undone, and we would spend hours fastening them together again. Or, frustrated at the slow progress we appeared to be making, I would take up the axe and swing it at the raft – afterwards checking frantically for serious cracks and breaks, while you tried to tell me that it would take more than that to render our work unseaworthy.
Sometimes we laughed while we worked; sometimes we cried – or rather, I cried. Hot heavy tears falling onto the raft we were building, until it seemed that those tears were preserving it, and preparing it for its time at sea. We worked in the thankless heat, and in the pouring rain, and we learned that we could survive both, and so could our raft. We discovered new techniques for binding the branches together; with your help I learned how to tie knots more firmly, and how to make repairs much faster. Sometimes when I became frustrated and picked up the axe to swing it, I would catch your eye, eyebrow raised as if asking ‘why?’, and I would pause. At that point, we might take a walk along the beach together; or I might simply drop the axe. More rarely I might decide to swing it anyway – more confident, now, in the strength of the raft, than nervous about my own ability to destroy it.
And then one day I thought I might take it out to sea just for a while, but not too far from shore. You stood watching and smiling as I enjoyed the sunshine on my face. But then, all too quickly, the clouds rolled in and the wind whipped up. The sky turned dark, and I was scared, and before I knew what was happening I found myself in the water.
I shouted to you on the shore, a child’s inflatable life-ring by your side: ‘throw me the life-ring – pull me in to shore!‘. You called out: ‘hold on to the raft!‘. I felt heavy, starting to sink – why couldn’t you see that I needed the ring? I floundered wildly, shouting again: ‘why are you letting me drown? I can’t see the raft, I need the ring – just reach out and throw me the ring!‘. You picked up a megaphone, your voice reaching out across the water: ‘the ring will not fit, it is not for you; but the raft is there, turn around and you will see it; you can wait out this storm – just hold on to the raft that we built“.
It was hard to hear her say that whatever she did it would never be enough. However many sessions we had, however many emails in between times – I would never feel that it was enough. It was hard to hear her say that I was an adult, even when I felt like a child. That I had the ability to think about that feeling of ‘need’ and to try and understand it; and perhaps even to recognise that it may not represent a ‘need’, though it may represent a ‘want’. It was hard to hear her say that my sense of her holding back and of me being ‘at her mercy’, were about feeling a lack of control over others’ actions and reactions. What I perceived as ‘being dependent on the whim of others’, was simply me coming up against the self-determination and spontaneity of other human beings, separate to me. She was separate, and not an extension of me.
It was hard to hear her say those things, and hard to know that she was right. Hard to think that much as I value even the smallest gesture on her part, part of me always wants more. Hard to realise that many of these lessons are lessons I thought that I had already learned. And yet……I would risk drowning, it seems, for the sake of her throwing out a life-line that could not really hold me, rather than depending on what I know we’ve built together. The big question, it seems to me, is WHY……