I wrote this article for welldoing.org more than a year ago, but didn’t post it as I was concerned in case it was seen by the person who prompted it to be written. However, I had cause to think of it again recently, and I believe enough time has passed that it is ‘safe’ to now share it here. I am still passionate in my belief that therapy is a sacred space, and that we have an ethical responsibility to honour that space, including in our interactions online:
I’m sharing a link to a post I wrote for World Mental Health Day four years ago. I love the words of this song, and I’m still so grateful for the online community in which we share our darkness and become a light for each other…
I’m nervous about going back to therapy tomorrow. You would have thought after five years and numerous therapy breaks, that I wouldn’t be wracked with anticipation, that I’d know what to expect. And, I guess, the problem is that I do. I know returns are difficult – the last week leading up to a return has always been particularly challenging, and this time has been no exception. My #therapybreak tweets from the final third of my five-week summer break, show that unfolding:
One thing that has changed over the years has been the speed of adjusting after the return, of reconnecting, and of working through the vestiges of resentment and anger that inevitably bubble up, however accepting I’ve consciously felt of my therapist’s need for a break. But I haven’t yet found a way of avoiding the clouding of vision, and turmoil of emotion that makes an appearance in the lead-up to the ‘reunion’, however things have gone in the preceding weeks. I think that part of the reason, at least, is an inability to completely let go of expectations.
Without wanting to or planning to, or even realising that it is happening, as the end of the break approaches my head starts to fill with imagined conversations and imagined scenarios of how the first session back could go. Those scenarios involve both the ways in which I’d like, and not like it to go, along with my possible responses. But either way, positive or negative, there are fears and expectations involved. I would like to be able to approach the end of the break and the first session back, with complete openness and curiosity, with excitement and gratitude for what has been and what is to come. But I find it so hard to release those thoughts of how I’d like her to be, what I’d like her to say, how I’d like the atmosphere to be. I know that I’m restricting both of our freedom, imprisoning us both, in a dynamic enforced by my expectations. I want to work on that – but I don’t yet know how.
[This post talks about the uniqueness and importance of ‘mother’, and for me, that has a particular meaning. But for others it may be more appropriate to invest this word with a different meaning – it may relate to a father, grandparent, or adoptive parent, or any other primary caregiver. I don’t mean to exclude by my use of the word; but it is so intrinsic to my own experience and what I’m writing about here, that I cannot avoid it.]
“You can hear something over and over again, but until you hear it at the right time, in the right context, in the right frame of mind and with the right understanding, it makes no impact. You can hear words and you may comprehend their meaning, but it may still not be clear what the words are meant to change, and how . “
That’s a paragraph from a post I wrote two years ago called ‘A new experience of mother – Part 3’. It was one of five posts on the same theme. It continues to surprise me, the way that therapy returns over and over again to the same topics, to the same ground, but in subtly different ways. The return is an indication that there is more to think about, more to say; an indication that there is still something unresolved, and something hidden to unearth. It continues to surprise me that the merest fraction of a degree in the angle at which we look at an issue, can make an enormous difference to our perception, and can lead to a revelation. And that the ‘revelation’ can be both so close in content to what we already knew, and yet so far from it in terms of its impact, that it seems both ludicrous and impossible, not to have seen it any earlier.
Elsewhere in the same post, I wrote the following:
“My therapist often made the point that she was different to my mother, and she made it in numerous ways. She made it by actually being different; by responding in ways I didn’t expect and then drawing my attention to the fact that I’d been anticipating the reaction my mother would have had. She was understanding when I expected judgment; caring when I expected criticism; comforting when I expected shaming. She made the point quite explicitly by saying that therapy offered me – she offered me – a different experience of mothering. I heard the words, and thought I understood them.”
And so I never expected to come back, two years later, and write what is effectively Part 6 of my series of posts on ‘A new experience of mother’. But I’m returning in order to add something absolutely vital to the things I realised then. Something that arose directly out of thinking about the distress I felt when my therapist did not answer my question about where she would be going on holiday this summer. I wrote about that incident in my post ‘Why therapists frustrate their clients’, but I wanted the realisation that came out of it, to be part of a separate post – this one.
When my therapist asked me to think about why it mattered so much to me that she had not answered my question, I said that it wasn’t so much the knowledge itself that was important, but what it would mean if she told me. I told my therapist that “it would mean a little less exclusion. It would mean feeling trusted. It would create a deeper feeling of relationship, and strengthen our bond. It would create another memory. All of those things seemed self-evident, natural, and in need of no further explanation. And yet she still seemed to think there was more to discover.”
Sometimes ideas occur to you in a way that is more like a voice speaking in your head, than your mind thinking a thought. That’s what it was like when all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, I heard an answer to my therapist’s question about why it mattered and what it would mean. “It means I have a mother”, the voice said, “and that is the most important thing”.
I was at home at the time, and it was a couple of hours after session. I stopped, utterly taken aback. What was going on? On the one hand, it immediately felt as though there was a weighty truth in the statement the voice had made. And I already knew I had a therapy-mother – my therapist had been using that terminology (and also the phrase ‘therapy-daughter’) for some time. But on the other hand, there was something not quite right about the statement. The voice said “and that is the most important thing” -but how could that be true? That, right there, seemed to be the voice of my biological mother, who insisted that she was and always would be the most important, the only truly trustworthy person in my life, the person who would love me in a way no one else could ever love me. This seemed to be the voice of the person who elevated mothers, and specifically herself, above every other person and type of relationship I might ever encounter. And I already knew, in so many different ways, what a negative effect on me her narcissism had had. So how could the voice be right, if it seemed to agree with her?
The next morning I awoke having had three dreams that felt clearly linked to each other, to the question I had been thinking about, and to the ‘answer’ I’d received. In various ways, the dreams drew attention to three aspects of the mothering I’d received when growing up. They showed me that I had a mother who wanted intimacy with me but at the same time couldn’t cope with it because she could not deal with her own emotions, let alone my own. She left me, therefore, with the sense that she was afraid of me, and that I was a threat to her. They showed me that I had a mother who never wanted me to grow up and was full of nostalgia for the days of my childhood, not seeing or wanting to see who I really was and was growing into. They showed me that I had a mother who wanted to appoint herself as the most significant person in my life, and wanted to exclude others from my affections.
But very importantly, the dreams also showed me something that I could never consciously have accepted as a possibility. They showed me that at one time in my life, even if I couldn’t remember it, I had wanted that intimacy and that exclusivity too, even though I knew that the former would lead to rejection and invalidation, and the latter would be poison. I didn’t always reject my mother and everything she stands for, as forcefully as I have done for the last twenty years or so. I didn’t always reject completely out of hand, any idea that came from her, or any association with her. And I didn’t need to reject everything that sounded like her voice, now. It was possible that she could speak some truth about mothering, even if she herself had not been a good-enough mother.
I grudgingly realised that my mother was right – and I never thought I’d say that about her! Having a mother is the most important thing. Mothers are unique, and there is no other relationship like it. Wrong though she was in the way that she interpreted that relationship, its meaning, and its implications, I now believe that she was right about the importance and uniqueness of the relationship. And I’ve read enough articles over the years, about the impact on individuals of losing their mothers, to know that for many people, the importance and uniqueness of that relationship continues well into adulthood, and up to death and beyond.
Two years ago, I came to understand that my therapist was providing a new experience of mothering. I knew my therapist was very different to my mother and I was grateful and full of joy to have a type of mother-daughter relationship with her. But what I didn’t understand until a few weeks ago, was that for the last two years I’ve been holding two somewhat contradictory positions alongside each other. Because while accepting that I had a therapy-mother, I also believed that my mother was wrong about the importance of the mother-daughter relationship. I believed that I didn’t really need a mother, and had never needed one. I knew I had a therapy-mother, but I still thought of myself as being without a mother. On numerous occasions I had caught myself thinking ‘if I had a mother…..’, as if my biological mother were dead, rather than me being emotionally estranged from her.
In placing such an emphasis on my therapist’s difference to my mother, and in deriding so strongly the very concept of the uniqueness and importance of the mother-daughter bond, I was inadvertently preventing the experience I was having with my therapist from becoming a fully healing and transformative experience. She was providing something wonderful – but I couldn’t see it as being the very thing I had lacked for so long, while I still refused to acknowledge the importance and the necessity of what had been lacking. Inevitably, my therapist was providing what I had lacked in a rather different, and a more intensive and more concentrated way to that in which it would have been given through the longer period of childhood and growing up – but she was providing it nonetheless.
When I saw my therapist the morning after my ‘answer’ came, along with my dreams, I told her that it finally felt as if something had shifted, and that I had been missing a vital puzzle piece that had now fallen into place. More than that, I had been missing something vital, and things had shifted internally so that somehow I now felt more complete. She said she was very glad the ‘penny had dropped’! I kept repeating to myself, inside my head, ‘I have a mother, I have a mother’, and every repetition was full of joy. Whenever she or I made reference to it, I couldn’t help smiling; I still can’t.
As well as being accepting and validating, I have a mother who is not threatened by me and is not afraid of me; a mother who sees, values, and enjoys the ‘adult me’ as well as the ‘child me’; and I have a mother who does not want or need exclusivity and is confident of her position in my heart. Unconsciously, that was the type of mothering I associated with my therapist feeling comfortable enough to talk to me about her holiday plans, and that is why it was so distressing to feel that that experience was being withheld. But if it hadn’t been, I may not have realised the things I did.
I may not have realised, finally, that in my therapist I have not just a new experience of mothering, but a good-enough mother – and absolutely nothing can take that away from me. I have a mother. The relationship I thought I didn’t need, is in fact vital. The relationship I had been missing, I now have. The experience I thought I would always have to do without, is now a part of me. I know that I will lose her, as the majority of mothers are lost, at one time or another, to their children. And that will be devastating. But not even that can take away from me the fact that what I was missing I am no longer missing, and will never miss again. That is indescribable. I have a mother. It is the most important thing.
I wrote this poem four years ago, as I was emerging from a period of deep depression and suicidal feelings. I’m reblogging it for World Suicide Prevention Day today, as I hope it might bring some light to those who are struggling in the shadows. It was the kind words and support of other people in the blogging and Twitter community, who started to bring light into my own shadows, during that time.
We are a complex mix of forces – of strength, and air, and light. But when darkness threatens to overtake us and those internal forces don’t seem strong enough, we need to wait, just long enough for the shadows to pass us by. We need to say ‘not tonight’. Please reach out if you need help in waiting, and in saying ‘not tonight’. x
While most of those I know in therapy are already back in session, I have another [insert own adjective] couple of weeks to go until I see my therapist again! I’m a little over two-thirds of the way through, and have put together my #therapybreak tweets for the middle third of this long summer break:
The first third can be found here and the final installment will be published on 23 September, the day before my return to session.
My thoughts are with those who have recently returned to session – going back involves such a mixture of states and emotions, and whatever happens in those first couple of weeks back, it is rarely straightforward. But I am grateful to a lovely Twitter friend and our chat earlier tonight, for the opportunity to remember and reflect on something very important about the return. She is seeing her therapist again soon, after a gap of a couple of months, and wondered if her therapist would remember what she was like, and how to work with her. And in replying to my friend, it was as if the last five years of working with my therapist were all present at once, and I grasped in one moment how I would have answered that question and felt in that situation a few years ago, versus how I feel now.
I said that yes, her therapist would remember what she was like and how to work with her. But at the same time, her therapist wouldn’t know how the last couple of months had been, until she was told, and working together changes all the time, so it is never completely the same. Her therapist will care and know her as before, but she will also be human and will not ‘get things’ straight away, and may not remember everything my friend might expect her to. But if that happens, it says nothing about how her therapist feels about her, or her desire to understand what’s going on. I said to my friend the things that I wish I could have said to myself – but I hadn’t realised them yet – a few years ago, in the early days of my therapy.
I hope my answer was helpful to my friend, but her asking the question was also a blessing for me. In replying and in reminding myself of what I knew, I felt a great sense of security and of knowing and being known. I remembered one or two sessions over the last few months when it was clear my therapist did not quite understand how things were for me, but it also evident that she cared deeply about understanding, and was trying hard to do so. I remember how powerful it was to realise that I’d reached the point where the fact that she didn’t understand, did not upset me; and the fact that she was committed to trying, was infinitely more important and moving. I smiled inside at the thought that she is human; I was grateful for it. Even though I could probably only recall one or two examples, the felt memories of her ‘human-ness’ permeated me, and I felt hugged by her presence. I no longer need to be ‘intuited’ -one of the changes that therapy has wrought. I just need someone to bring themselves as they are, to be there, to care, and to try. How much simpler; how much more precious. What a gift…..
“It feels as though you want me to learn through deprivation” I tried to argue through my tears. “But why can’t the same lesson be learned through positive means? If I ask a question, why not answer it first, and only then ask me to think about why I asked, and what it means to know the answer? That way, all the distress and disconnection of not receiving a reply can be avoided; we can start thinking about the matter, from a place of confidence and trust”.
“It’s a good theoretical question”, my therapist replied. “But sometimes I think it’s necessary to frustrate, to really get at what might be going on”.
Not just frustration, but distress. Distress that cut me off from her and immediately caused me to switch from a fairly adult mode, to a hurt child just wanting to protect herself. For the second time in the last few weeks I asked my therapist where she would be going on holiday, and for the second time, she did not answer. Instead – no prizes for guessing the stock therapist phrase that came next – she asked, “What does it mean to you, knowing where I will be going? Why is it significant?”
The distress was very real but it also felt predictable – it was a case of ‘here we go again’. I knew that precious time would be lost while I clammed up and found it impossible to speak. Whatever it was that I had come to session wanting to talk about, would be waylaid and sabotaged by that one question. It seemed to me that it would be a mark of progress if I could just put the distress to one side, and carry on – as if the question had never been asked. I wouldn’t let my internal saboteur win this one – my therapist had encouraged me to be wary of him, often enough.
But unusually, (as she tends to let me lead), my therapist seemed to want to steer me back into conversation about the question. She has an acuity of judgment that seems to be able to differentiate between the saboteur, and an altogether more straightforward, vulnerable side of me, even though the two often sometimes look the same. I think she saw the question not as a distraction, but as hiding something important. And she wanted us to work on getting to the bottom of it.
Years ago, her comment about frustration would have lit my internal touch paper and I would have seen red. It would have felt uncomfortably close to the idea that suffering can be good (which makes my skin crawl) as opposed to the idea that good things can inadvertently result from it. I would have wondered at how she could choose a path that she knew would lead to distress, when it seemed to me there was a perfectly suitable alternative. But I know her better than that now. I trust her vastly more than that. I know she cares deeply and will do what she believes is right and in my best interests. When I asked her why I needed to learn through ‘deprivation’, I couldn’t yet see why she was right. But I was willing to trust that she might be, and willing to work with her, to see what we could find.
It’s very easy to settle for the obvious, simple answers. I think it’s what I tend to do, when the time isn’t yet ripe for other answers. I said that in many ways, knowing the place where she would be on holiday was not in itself a hugely significant piece of knowledge. It meant that I could look up a picture of the place and envisage her there; it meant I could use that picture as the home screen on my phone, and it would be a helpful way of connecting with her during the summer therapy break. I said that much more significant than that piece of knowledge, was what it would mean if she told me. “And what would it mean?” she asked. It would mean a little less exclusion. It would mean feeling trusted. It would create a deeper feeling of relationship, and strengthen our bond. It would create another memory. All of those things seemed self-evident, natural, and in need of no further explanation. And yet she still seemed to think there was more to discover. That we hadn’t yet got to the bottom of it. She didn’t quite understand why the withholding of what still seemed to her a fairly insignificant piece of information, could create the level of distress that she was observing.
The pain lingered between sessions. Her belief that there was more, the fact that she still didn’t quite understand what was going on, troubled me. I wanted, desperately, to understand. Despite myself, her curiosity became my curiosity, fuelled by my despair. I’m not sure whether I thought that an answer to my question would ever be forthcoming, but the desire to know the answer was soon completely eclipsed by my desire to understand what was going on.
Why did it matter so much that she should tell me? Why was it significant? What on earth did it mean? My mind buzzed with the questions; I was taken over by them. In the car, at home, carrying out tasks, moving about. And quite suddenly, an internal voice – definitely me, but appearing out of the blue, somewhat like free association – gave me an answer. And it stopped me in my tracks. It was blindingly true, but also difficult to swallow, as it ran counter to my ‘natural’ way of thinking. It was unexpected, staggering, and it put not just one thing but many things, into a completely different light.
I went to bed shortly afterwards, my mind still buzzing, feeling blown away. It’s fairly rare for me to remember dreams, particularly in great detail, but that night I had three dreams which I remembered vividly, and which I knew the minute I woke, were inter-related. I usually struggle to interpret my dreams and to link them to the work of therapy, but as I drove to session that morning, the meanings started unpacking themselves with startling clarity. I was awed by the way in which our minds can put together images with purpose to help meaning float up out of them. I felt fortunate that a couple of weeks before that, I’d had a similar sequence of three dreams in which I realised that what was important was to pick out what was consistent across all three sequences, rather than pondering the meaning of each detail. Sometimes the details were there purely in order to demonstrate that the details didn’t matter – what mattered were the themes.
The dreams added further layers of understanding to the flash I’d had the night before. I’d come to a surprising realisation, and the dreams helped me to see the different ways in which it was true. The dreams showed me the less self-evident, and vitally important ways, in which it really did matter that my therapist talked to me about where she would be going on holiday.*
What followed was a session that was both very moving, and deeply joyful. It felt as though something had finally clicked into place; as though a missing piece had been found. There was a clarity of vision I rarely experience, but which always feels striking and humbling when I do.
And part of that clarity was the slightly reluctant but unequivocal realisation that my therapist had been right. Of course it’s a matter of conjecture, but I tried to think honestly about what I thought might have happened, if my therapist had answered the question first, and asked me to analyse, second. Much as I wanted to believe that the outcome would have been the same, I knew that I didn’t really believe that.
I had been very distressed, and I wish that there had some way around that. I imagined how good it would have felt if she had replied to my question straight away, and I imagined turning my attention to thinking about why my question was important, with a joyful heart, and feeling close and connected. And yet lovely though that picture was, it lacked the all-consuming motivation, the fierce curiosity, the absolute drive to understand so that I could somehow try and make sense of my pain, even if I couldn’t make it go away. I can’t honestly say that I think the same outcome would have been achieved if I had had her answer first. In fact I believe the opposite – that it’s unlikely the breakthrough would have happened – at least, not at that time. And I’m very glad that it did.
As my therapist is prone to reminding me, ‘good therapy sessions’ aren’t defined in terms of whether I go away from a session feeling uplifted and joyful. ‘Good work’ in therapy is very often painful, very often involves distress. I know that my therapist does not like seeing me in pain; I know that she would never cause it intentionally. Sometimes, pain is the unintended consequence of her being just as human as I am; sometimes, it is the by-product of a sound therapeutic judgment and the decision to withhold and frustrate rather than to provide and satisfy. And all these situations are absolutely compatible with wholehearted caring and commitment, which is what she continues to show to me, five years down the line.
I didn’t ask her again, where she would be going on holiday. She did tell me, in a subsequent session, and I thanked her, without asking her why. I know that withholding the information was never a matter of principle, the information was never a secret. I think she told me because it felt straightforward to do so. I don’t think there was an ‘agenda’, or a particular reason. I think it probably just felt like the right thing to do at the time, and there was no good therapeutic reason for not doing it.
For both of us, therapy is hard work, and very often involves sifting and working through a great deal of non-straightforward conscious and sub-conscious ‘stuff’. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes things just are. Sometimes, we just are. But to get to ‘just be’, we often have to bear with the frustration of not knowing quite how, who, and were we are at, and why. At those times we need to try and trust that even though it may be our therapist ‘doing’ the frustrating, they are not the same person as the many others who may have frustrated us in the past, for quite other reasons. They simply know that we will be more likely to gain insight into our pain and to heal, if we can stay inside our predicament and our hunger to understand our dilemma, rather than observe it from the sidelines, from the perspective of satiation.
*[Interestingly, when I proof-read this post I realised I’d written ‘where we should be going on holiday’, instead of ‘where she would be going on holiday’, transposing the ‘sh’ and w’ of ‘she’ and ‘would’. A Freudian slip? Perhaps it was the echo of my therapist’s light hearted comment that unlike Freud, she didn’t take her patients on holiday with her!].
**I haven’t given the details of the realisation I mentioned here, but only because it will be the subject of another post in future.