I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever written. I think it’s also the most inward looking, the most esoteric, the least relatable – unless you happen to be in a very similar place to me. Albert Camus wrote that “bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know”. Bad or good – it will depend on how much of my inner context, you know from your own experience.
Tucked at the back of a pocket in my purse, I have a small piece of paper with the following words: “We suffer at our sense of loss, we are frightened by her rage, we are guilty in the face of her rejection, we are hurt by her choice of isolation, and we are confused by her message”. It’s a reminder of what I don’t want to become, of what I don’t want to be said of me.
The words are from the eulogy at the funeral of Christine Chubbuck, an American TV news reporter who took her own life live on air in 1974. I watched the powerful film of her life a few months ago, and then read an in-depth article written shortly after her death, which contained descriptions of her from family, friends, and work colleagues. Like the manner of Christine’s death, it was haunting and disturbing, and made for uncomfortable reading, not least because of the implication that Christine’s death was a choice that amounted to a denial of the support available around her, a rebellious message to those she felt had rejected her.
No one knows exactly how she felt in the lead-up to her death, or what the complex mix of factors and motivations was – conscious and unconscious – that led her to take her life, in that way. My own response to the film and the article, what I take from them, are only my personal attempt to derive from them that which will be most helpful for my own journey. They should not be taken as my own interpretation of what was going on for her. All I can say is that for me, what is most helpful at this point in my own therapy, is one word above all others, in that extract from Christine’s eulogy – it is the word ‘choice’.
At a certain point, when we are far enough down the road of reflection, self-examination, and recovery, I think that long-term therapy becomes a moral matter. I had begun to believe that before I watched “Christine”, but the film and article brought that message home with a vengeance.
I think the phrase ‘moral matter’ needs some explanation, so that it is not misunderstood. I don’t mean morality in its religious, cultural, or judicial sense; I mean personal morality, the way in which we choose to live our lives – ‘the place from which we act’, as my therapist would say. Eventually, when you’re no longer in mental crisis day after day, when you’re no longer in deep despair more often than not, when you’re no longer self-harming, or suicidal, or living constantly with the ghosts of projections; when you’re ‘well enough’ and understand enough to see your patterns of behaviour and to know where they come from – at that point, a greater awareness of personal responsibility for recovery starts to set in, and decisions from the small to the large become much more consciously about choosing to act from a place that is not ruled by past patterns, a place of freedom and integrity.
This is a difficult topic – you might even call it offensive, in some ways. It was offensive to me when my therapist first started suggesting I could choose how I felt about certain things. I would insist that I couldn’t help feeling sad or depressed, that I couldn’t help, for example, dwelling on the pain that came from feeling excluded from her life. Yet she would keep telling me that I had a choice about how much attention I paid to those feelings, and how much room in my psyche, I allowed them to take up. I was upset and offended by the implication that I was choosing pain and depression over thankfulness and joy – a subconscious choice, perhaps, but exhibited consciously in the overt belief that I had no control over my emotions. And yet we all have more choice than we think we do, and others, particularly our therapists, can see that in us, before we are aware of it.
I remember the first time I came starkly face to face with this in session. My therapist and I had been discussing some difficult self-sabotaging behaviour, and I’d identified a pattern in the behaviour, and an explanation for it. My response was to simply affirm that now I understood what the behaviour was about, I could see how and why it would continue to occur.
Sometimes it really is the case that one has to be cruel to be kind, and my therapist left me in no doubt of the seriousness of my statement and the threat it represented to the therapeutic process. If I’d identified a pattern and understood its origins, I was no longer powerless or without choice. It was not a fait accompli that the behaviour would continue – I could work hard, take responsibility, and try and stop it. It might take me a long time, and progress might be slow; but there is a crucially important gulf between turning one’s face and one’s heart towards progress and committing to change, and deciding to stare only at one’s feet, and where they are currently planted.
My therapist didn’t put it this way, but retrospectively I would say I was faced with a choice of personal morality. Do I move with integrity and responsibility to make a change and act from a different place, or do I continue to act in a way that is damaging to myself and others, and allow myself to believe that that’s just how things are, and that I have no choice in the matter?
I changed my behaviour in the way I needed to back then, but it wasn’t the only time my therapist has had to remind me of the weight of that responsibility for change, and of the implications for therapy, of refusing – whether actively or passively – to bear the weight of that responsibility. She reminded me again, only a few weeks ago, when I seemed adamant that I simply could not see a way forward towards a happier, more fulfilled life, and towards an image of myself that was even remotely positive. It’s almost as if I was saying – ‘do something, because I can’t do it, or I won’t’. But of course without my agency, she has no agency to help me; she cannot do her work without me doing mine.
I’m sure I read somewhere that Carl Jung said that people in therapy are far more willing to confront the skeletons in their closets, than to face the good inside themselves. I’ve seen it often enough within myself, and it makes intellectual sense – resisting recovery is natural, because change, even for the good, is frightening, and the familiar feels safer and more predictable. Encouraged by my therapist, I’ve tried to turn this ‘head knowledge’ into an active struggle to try and identify what advantage those resistant parts of me gain, by remaining stuck in old patterns. The parts of the picture come slowly, small pieces at a time, and even thoughts that feel like revelations are sometimes only one aspect of a much bigger whole.
If remaining with old patterns feels safer, what do we gain by refusing to remain stuck? The difficulty is that the skeletons in the closet have a habit of breeding – we add to them – when we refuse to confront and own their ugliness as our own, and also at the same time refuse to accept and own our goodness and our ability to change. We act from a place of fear, and shame, and defensiveness, and in ways that are damaging to ourselves and others. We act from our unconscious without an awareness of what drives us; we act through the fog of projection, rather than from a clear vision of who we and others are. We act from fear of loss – of so many different kinds.
There are many examples from my daily life. In therapy, this action is made manifest in behaviour that negatively impacts my process and therapeutic relationship, whether that is shutting down in a session because of resentment at not having a perceived need met, or intruding into my therapist’s space in some way, because of a need to feel close. It is made manifest in many, many different ways – many human ways. Because at this stage in my therapy, I’m there less because I am ‘ill’, than because I human, and all of us have circumstances and hurts that we are trying to get to grips with in order to live a life of greater freedom and depth. For me, a key part of that is learning to deal with loss in a way that doesn’t frighten, destroy, or overshadow everything else in my life. It means learning to accept that I am significant and loved purely for who I am.
After a difficult therapy session this week, I posted on Twitter that I was sitting in a café rather than going home to be alone with my self-harming thoughts. As I was sitting there, I kept thinking, ‘I need to feel better, I need to feel better, I need to feel better’. A kind and thoughtful therapist suggested I reframe these thoughts as ‘I would like to feel better and I can, I have before and I can again’. She suggested that words such as ‘should’ and ‘need’ put too much pressure on myself, and that there is a difference between motivating myself, and pushing myself too hard. The encouragement towards self-compassion is an important one, particularly when it comes to my emotions, and to how I feel about myself. But when it comes to my ‘internal orientation’, to the direction in which my heart and mind are set, to my actions and to what I do, I realised that I need more, even, than self-motivation. I need determination, utter commitment and resolve, a sense of importance and urgency. I realised, as I was still pondering the matter a few hours later, that what I needed to keep uppermost in my internal struggles, were the words ‘I can and I must’.
‘I can and I must’. Does this constitute putting too much pressure on myself? At first glance, it looks like it. At first glance it seems the very opposite of what had been suggested to me. But I don’t believe that it needs to be. I wouldn’t apply ‘I can and I must’ to the desire to feel better – accepting and sitting with my feelings, whatever they may be, can be a positive thing. There is no contradiction between feeling despairing and hopeless for a while, and staying in my integrity. But feelings don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen within a worldview, within a locus of control, bounded by action or inaction. I won’t tell myself that I ‘must’ feel better. But when it comes to trying to face and fight my inner resistance to feeling better, my internal saboteur who wants to keep me stuck feeling bad, and who wants me to stay in the pit of despair – that’s when I need to say ‘I can and I must’. I can and I must stand and fight. Choosing not to fight, postponing the fight, ignoring the fight, telling myself the fight doesn’t matter, or will be won another day – that’s not staying in my integrity.
As I continued to think things through many hours later, and tried to see the ‘I can and I must’ aspect of the situation I was in, the following became abundantly clear. Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. Every time I fight my internal saboteur I am affirming my walk on a path that ultimately leads to readiness to say goodbye, physically at least, to the dearest, most important adult in my life, and to the one who has shaped me these last few years and will continue to do so internally, for the rest of my life.
I can continue to delude myself that I am at risk of losing my therapist’s care, or her good opinion, or that I don’t matter to her as much as others, or that I don’t belong in some way in her life; and I can continue to seek reassurance and try and build up a store of as much concrete comfort and as many wonderful words as I can, before therapy ends, in the hope that those things will sustain me afterwards. Or I can stop deluding myself and just accept what she shows and tells me. Accept that I am loved and wanted and significant, and that I belong. And if I accept those things, I have no reason to seek reassurance, or to seek ways to keep adding to that externally sourced, concrete ‘store’.
I can delude myself that that concrete ‘store’ is vital to my survival, or I can open my eyes to the fact that I have been neglecting my ‘internal store’ of my experienced and lived relationship with her – indefinable, not concrete, impossible to capture in words, as it is – and I have been minimising it, making it vulnerable, weak, and small, in order to provide myself with a reason to keep stockpiling my external store. And that is far outside my integrity, and a cruel act against myself. I can and I must stop doing that. I can and I must stop bankrupting my internal relationship so that I can keep adding to my memory bank.
It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.
This is the hardest, most brutal, most challenging, most exhausting thing I have ever done. I had not the slightest idea, when I started, that this is what therapy would mean for me. That I would reach a point when this wasn’t just about feeling better, but about being better. It’s so easy to take umbrage, in the days of fighting expectation and perfectionism, and accepting that one is ‘good enough’, to the idea of being ‘better’ – but there is no contradiction between being ‘good enough’ and still striving to be more fully human. Who wouldn’t, in the final instance, say that they were living, in some form of another, to serve love (for themselves, for others, for their passions); and which one of us wouldn’t say we would like to better and more fully give and receive love. We are all either advantaged or disadvantaged to a varying degree in that capacity to give and receive love, depending on our nature, our nurture, and our past and present experiences. Growing in this area, getting better at giving and receiving love, can be a tremendous joy – therapy can be a tremendous joy. But it is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It really has been, and continues to be, both the worst of times and the best of times, both the season of darkness and the season of light, both the winter of despair, and the spring of hope.
I’ll end very near the place where awareness of this ‘moral journey’ started for me, even before I saw the film ‘Christine’. As well as with the words and influence of my therapist, it started with this extract from a book by Ann Belford Ulanov, a Jungian analyst, and what ties it to the quote from Christine’s eulogy, is once again the word ‘choice’:
“In the world of neurosis and psychosis there inevitably comes a time in treatment when moral choice presents itself to the person involved. The terms come clear. Choose life – being, bits and pieces of goodness – or choose to fall away into illness, into non-being. This is a choice one lives toward. It does not come quickly or all at once. It is certainly not something manufactured ‘for the good of the patient’. The choice cannot be hastened, nor produced at will. But if the psychotherapeutic treatment achieves any success, sooner or later this choice will present itself in the most intimate of personal terms to the person involved and demand a response. Side with goodness, the patient will be told from within, even though it is a shadowed goodness, an ambiguous goodness; side with it or turn away from it’.
[Though not mentioned explicitly, I am also grateful for Brene Brown and her books on vulnerability and shame which I have been reading and listening to over the last few months, and her own emphasis on courage and faith and acting from integrity.]