In therapy, I am looking out of the window at the gravestones.
I didn’t deliberately choose a therapist whose office was in a cemetery but now that I think about it, there is something peaceful and fitting about talking of the past surrounded by the dead.
Our conversation is about the need to please my mother before pleasing myself.
“I didn’t manage it at all while she was alive, but I did get there partially years after she was gone.”
A magpie lands on the windowsill.
I search the periphery for another, but only see a man on a bench with a can of strong cider.
As he leans forward and reaches into an overfull “bag for life” I wonder who’ll go first, him or the bag, and I am reminded of a revelation in my understanding of what it is to “recover”.
I was working with an alcoholic in long-term sobriety but who still struggled with crippling anxiety.
Near the end of our work together, he said,
“When I realised that recovery didn’t mean eradicating a problem, it just meant learning to respond differently things became easier.”
Psychotherapist Petruska Clarkson wrote of therapy,
“From the very beginning both participants engage in a relationship of mutuality where not only the client is changed by the counsellor but the counsellor is affected and changed by the client.”
I’d not previously been able to sum up the challenge of “recovery” as eloquently as my client and it has stayed with me ever since.
Within this definition, it seems to me, is a blessed release from hopelessly trying to change instinctive and instant emotional responses and a focus instead on a shift in behaviour.
In addiction, it might look like the difference between suffering bitter disappointment or setback and reaching for a bottle of vodka to block it out versus a willingness to sit with and experience the intense discomfort until it passes. The hope that we might reach a point where the bad feeling doesn’t come in the first place is mostly forlorn.
Then another thing I learned about recovery was brought into focus during a session this week.
While there is often a way in which, through behaviours or thought, we actively look to repair the pain of the past, there can be a stubborn part of us seemingly wedded to reliving those same traumas.
For example, people who have a hard time seeing themselves as valuable might unconsciously seek out relationships with partners who are emotionally unavailable. Their worst fears about themselves are confirmed and they push away any offers of devoted and sustainable love because they don’t recognise it and therefore, don’t trust it either.
In my relationship with my mother, I strode well into adulthood still wobbling between striving to be the person I thought myself to be and the one I felt she expected.
Trying to be someone else for the imagined benefit of another makes it hard to fulfil the promise of ourselves.
Reading Holly Whitaker’s Substack this week (if you have even a small interest in addiction, recovery or life itself you’d do well to subscribe) I began to think about self-actualisation and how it can sometimes feel like a burden.
While it might be a prime motivation to keep moving forward, making ourselves better, and finding meaning and purpose, what happens when we link that forward motion with our value as human beings?
If I believe I am valuable only when I am achieving, succeeding or fulfilling my potential it might feel OK while things are going well, but what happens when they aren’t, or when I don’t have the energy to keep going in a forward direction? I may begin to feel less valuable, and if I feel less valuable, achievement, success, and self-actualisation itself become increasingly harder as I spiral downwards in a negative self-fulfilling state.
This too is fundamental to the way we perceive recovery. Is it a task to complete, or a life’s work that will never end? Aren’t we all in recovery of some sort? Isn’t that what self-actualisation really is?
It might appear as if thinking of recovery as endless is depressing and hopeless, but if I know I’ll never finish why do I need to put myself under such pressure to keep progressing all the time?
A common question directed at people bereaved and grieving is, “How are you?”
While well-intentioned, it is mostly unhelpful because the obvious answer is, “How the fuck do you think I am?” but more than that, the horizon is too long.
“What sort of day is it today?” might be better because it freezes the moment and doesn’t require the consideration of such broad and unmanageable context in the fog of grief.
Maybe recovery is like that too when it’s working best, and self-actualisation.
“How am I today?”
Released from a never-ending expectation of improvement and fulfilment maybe the idea of sustaining it wouldn’t feel so impossible.