Travelling on a train from Broadstairs my friend asks me whether my training and experience have helped me navigate more easily the tricky waters of human relationships. Without hesitating to consider the question, because it is one with which I am so familiar, I find myself answering more eloquently than ever before. Perhaps my certainty has crystallised, perhaps I was unsure before whether it was what I think or just what I believed I should think. “I don’t always do what’s best for me, but I almost always know what that is”. This is the trouble with therapy, it shines a light where it’s often much easier to surrender to ignorance, and stay in the dark.
There is a point in therapy, assuming you’ve stuck with it long enough to get there, when clarity starts to emerge. Sometimes it happens in session one but often much later. Illuminating observations are made either by your therapist, blessed by a complete lack of preconception about you or, through the lens of the relationship, by you. Even if you feel drawn to rejecting, shrugging off or ignoring the sense that you find it won’t go away. Like wasps at a picnic, the moments of truth keep coming back, looking for the sweet treats. You are the jam tart.
The people who reject the value of therapy, decry its effectiveness, or feel unworthy of what they perceive as its indulgence, are those who, at some level, fear greater knowledge of themselves. Something inside unconsciously reminds them that with knowledge comes responsibility and with that comes a compelling invitation to take control and change things. Most of us want that, but not if it’s painful, and it usually is.
The hardest times I have spent in therapy are the ones in which I have heard or realised something which needs attention, or which challenged a hard held belief about myself in a way that stood open armed, waiting for action. “You’re too comfortable Graham”, said to me some years ago, was a bitter but wholly accurate pill.
I can generally see when someone is teetering on the edge of bailing out of our work together. The need for emotionally holding someone in so precarious a position is immense and the difficulty of doing so is in similar proportion. Addicts are especially delicate. Whatever attendant issues they face brought about by their destructive dependency it is when the therapist says “You’ll have to stop drinking if you want me to help you” that the shutters most often come down. We want to recover while refusing to get better, and that’s the trouble with therapy, you have to do the work, and it’s frequently hard.
Even though most people’s experience is less extreme, at some stage in the work we’ll almost certainly encounter the question, “So what shall I do?”. All the sanding away of the rust, the clearance of the undergrowth has brought us to this point. The slow and steady reveal, the “why?”. Armed with a knowledge which, however uncomfortably, points towards how I got into this mess in the first place, I realise I probably need to do something about it. I may be frightened of doing so, I may not even want to move, but I turned up here in this little room every week, paid my money, asked you to help, and now, together, we’ve uncovered a problem that I have to address. That’s the problem with therapy.
There’s no satisfactory direct answer that a therapist can give to the “what shall I do?” question. What is interesting about the question is that there is often much less confusion about the answers, or their absence, than you think.
First, the answers to these questions are obvious but uncomfortable;
I’m in an abusive relationship, what shall I do?
I keep picking unsuitable partners, what shall I do?
My addiction is dismantling my life, what shall I do?
Second, the answers to these questions do not exist;
How can I stop the pain of loss?
How can I stop making mistakes?
How can I rid myself of all anxiety/sadness/hurt?
Trying to find satisfactory answers to these questions will have us circling for eternity looking for a place to land. We cannot stop that which is a fundamental part of existence. Light is only light because dark exists, and therapy requires facing reality in all its forms, that’s the trouble.
We stop ourselves from taking useful and constructive action because we are waiting to feel different, and that change never comes. I have lost count of the times I have heard someone tell me that they will stop their destructive behaviours as soon as they feel a bit happier. It’s the same as telling yourself that you will stop smacking your head on a wall as soon as your skull stops hurting like hell. We have to make difficult changes, and accept that the temporary discomfort it triggers is frequently worse than the pain we are already in, that’s the trouble with therapy.
Pulling into the station I find I have been pondering on my own clarity as the yellow squares of light in the rows of houses flash by. In the lengthening darkness of another heady summer evening it feels late, but not too late. It is never a curse to know what I need even when I can’t find it. The words of a doctor I know circle through my head as they do so often; “Graham, many of the people that come into my room spend their whole lives asleep, and then they die”. I’d rather be awake, and I’m glad that I am even when it’s hard to be. I’m thankful for that, and for the gift of therapy.