Last week I had a dream. It was short and it was vivid, but its message wasn’t immediately clear. I dreamed that I was keeping a body in the cellar. Apparently nobody knew it was there but me. What surprised me was my sense of calm and the complete absence of panic about my secret being discovered. I wasn’t aware of being responsible for putting the body there but I didn’t seem too bothered about removing it either.
Later a client was telling me about an indiscretion in his relationship which had left him reeling with guilt and shame. So much of his focus was on wanting what had happened, not to have done. Without a time machine there was little either of us could do.
Another client, tortured by anxiety, was describing a triggering event which she wants to erase from her mind so that she is able to get back to leading the life she had before it happened. The fact that there had been a catalogue of traumatic experiences in the years preceding didn’t seem to be of such conscious significance, perhaps because they had been so effectively packaged away, or so she thought.
Some years ago I spent a session with a client who was over a decade into recovery from alcoholism, and it remains one of the most memorable hours of therapeutic work I have done. We discussed the definition of recovery, and arrived at the realisation that the past is what it is, and that the perils and pitfalls in which we were caught still exist and will likely exist in the future. What changes is not the physical or emotional landscape but rather our ability to navigate it in a more constructive and healthy way. Released from the need to remove everything we fear suddenly everything is a lot less frightening.
My client struggling with an infidelity is wrestling with a part of himself, the part which wants excitement, spontaneity and uncertainty. My client with anxiety is struggling with the part of her that wants not only to feel safe but also to be validated. Tired of always having to remain strong when upsetting and brutal things have happened she is being pushed and taunted by the part which needs caring for and affirming. These parts of us are not “bad” or “destructive” per se, but they become so when they are ignored, and they make it harder for us to satisfy the need they have in a positive, healthy and meaningful way. They are bodies in the cellar and, although they might be out of sight, they are not out of mind.
As we progress through life we are constantly met with invitations and opportunities to handle matters differently. We are given the chance to avoid repetition of painful mistake, to instead forge alternative routes. Recovery is not about eradicating the choices, it’s about making better ones. So, that being the case, we can always choose to carry on doing what we always did and getting the same unsatisfactory result, keeping the body in the cellar.
The reason the body in the cellar isn’t a worry for me is that I think it is me. It represents parts of me, attitudes, approaches, strategies that don’t work any longer. Its very existence reminds me that I forever need to shed my skin and become different, reinvented. Only that way can I resist the inevitable decline of my physical self through concentrating on the constant upward surge of the part which is beyond my body, my thoughts and my emotions, my soul. The soul is the very essence of who we are, beyond our thoughts, behaviours and physical body, and it is something which can never be left in the cellar.