Needing to wake particularly early one morning this week I had a predictably restless nights sleep. Having woken at both midnight and again at three I then embarked upon a vivid dream which began with a previous client of mine writing a phone number on my leg and which culminated in me finding myself in some sort of adventure park very high up on a wooden construction with either a wafer thin bar to walk across or an immense ladder to climb down using rungs which were a frighteningly wide distance apart. The middle of the night, the middle of the story, I might hurt myself, terrifying.
Later this week I received a rare gift, the opportunity to catch up with a client from the past and an update on the story I shared for a while. It is not often that someone will take the time to write and let me know what’s happening, and why should they? Part of the value of therapy is the opportunity to talk with someone who plays no other or continuing role in your life. The liberation we can experience knowing that the relationship is contained within four walls and is unable to morph into anything unknown or unwanted is hard to describe and impossible to replicate. Although her tale is far from ended I felt great delight at hearing about her progress and I was left with a sense of stillness, however temporary, despite a context of grief, loss and hurt. When we reach a point of pause, a comma, a place from which we are able to reflect and look back at the distance traveled, pain and hurt find a space we are unable to give them when we are in the midst of the narrative.
Later that day a client is telling me about a trauma, a shock, a surprise of such jolting magnitude that her distress is palpable in both her physiology and in the way it seems to thicken the air in the room. She is at the beginning of a story and, despite her desperation to know how everything will turn out, is completely unable to turn each page more quickly than it is written, and it is written more slowly than seems bearable. I am struck by the juxtaposition of client and therapist in moments like these. I stand at one end of the path sometimes, when I can find one, holding a light but often simply waiting. I cannot go and find her because I know the territory no better than she does and there is no sense in us both being lost in the woods. But I know that she can find a way through, and that I can stand there as long as I am required. Patience is in shortest supply when we are most in need of it, and we need it most when we hurt, right in the middle of the story.
If we are honest with ourselves the most acute emotional hurt comes from reflecting on what has past and all that we could have done to change it, and all that is to come, frantically trying to shape it into something good. We may feel hurt most often in the middle of the story but it comes from where we are looking and not from where we stand. The only point of stillness is in the eye of the storm.
When things go badly for us the tendency is to focus on what we believe the impact might have been or might be in the future. A neglected child is often held in the fury and sadness of what has passed even when they are grown up and no more in the thrall of the abuser. Controlling and domineering parents can still appear to have control even long after they are dead. When someone dies or a relationship breaks the pain is supercharged not by focusing on the loss in that moment but of projecting forward into a life that we have not yet lived but can vividly imagine having to endure without that person by our side. All of these are significant and difficult experiences to survive, but we so often do, so how do we manage it? We do it by separating what is real today from what was real yesterday. We do it by dealing with what happens now instead of what might happen next. We do it by putting one foot in front of the other until, without warning, we find that we are somewhere else. In the words of Calvin & Hobbes, “It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back everything is different”
In the dream I elect to take the ludicrous ladder. Much to my surprise, even in a dream, I manage to navigate the disparate rungs with a lightness I don’t recognise in myself. Back on solid ground I stir and, even in a sleepy stupor, it strikes me that faced with my dream decision in real life I would have likely agonised over what falling might feel like and whether I’d survive while glued to the spot hoping that something might change. By sticking with the only thing I could control in that moment, I got through it. It might only be a dream, but still.