Very powerful piece by Alaina, for which many thanks.
I know this landscape of bleak despair, and the urge to die. Since I was a teenager, I have visited it from time to time. During my training as a therapist and for a long time after, I believed that – if I did enough or the right kind of personal work in my inner world – this would change. I would find the gateway, and leave the dark lands behind me. Now I am not so sure.
Perhaps I ride the storm in more helpful ways than I once did. I am connected to my own embodied and feeling experience in ways I once was not. I have close relationships which support me. I now seldom use techniques with harmful consequences to numb pain. But presence is a mixed gift. I feel my pain, where once I had a thousand ways to check out.
Most likely, the reason I survive the storm when it hits, is because I never quite let go of how it would be for those who love me, if I did take my own life. I have seen too much of the aftermath of self-inflicted death, to allow myself to do it, if I can prevent myself. I also retain just a shred of ‘this changed last time, so it can change again’. Empathy and scepticism see me through…. Sometimes the margins feel very fine.
I wasn’t always a therapist. In the 1990s, I had a highly paid, highly demanding job (in an office, supporting the corporate world). My life probably looked good, seen from outside – a ‘successful’ life, as we have been taught to see that in our toxic culture. But I experienced it as fundamentally meaningless. I trudged a long, grey corridor. I was almost always unhappy, often searingly, agonizingly so, and every few months I would enter the heart of darkness, where the pressure built in my mind: ‘kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself’. I would take a few days off ‘sick’, and gradually, gradually emerge enough to resume the trudge. Like Alaina, I was mostly functional. I did stuff, I went on holidays, I had a wide social circle and some close friends. Like Alaina, I noticed the bounds of their willingness and ability to be with me when I fell into the dark.
Since those days, my life – when I am not preoccupied with the wish to die – has transformed beyond imagining. Most of the time, I don’t want to kill myself. Some of the time, I do. These days, I am fortunate in having a couple of people right in the centre of my life, who are able to stay with me in the darkness. Both are person-centred therapists, although neither is my therapist. It does not feel accidental. It takes a lot of work and a lot of commitment, to travel one’s own road enough to be able to accompany someone else on theirs in a helpful way – especially in this culture. That work and commitment may not be therapy-related, of course – there are many roads. I also do some conscious dance, and I find there an environment where I can come as I am. If my reality is grief-soaked, traumatized and terrifying, no-one seeks to fix me, no-one pathologizes me, no-one gives me the message I am unacceptable. There is contact if I want it, space if that is what I need.
Both in my close personal world and in the dance, I feel seen, and gently, authentically, empathically, respectfully loved, in ways that shape to me and make no demand I be different. I cannot over-state the value of this to me. I feel a little safer, when those around me can offer these qualities of presence.
I have done a huge amount of personal work, since the 1990s. It’s been a long time since I needed to take ‘sick’ leave. That’s not because I feel better necessarily, but I seem more able to remain present – both with my own flow and with other people – even when my inward weather closes in. I notice what Rogers describes…. Life does not feel easy, but my weather states are far more fluid, and ever-changing. I don’t get stuck, for days, weeks or months. In sessions, dark weather becomes a kind of deep context, there at the edges of my awareness – my forward-facing attention is with the person I am sitting with, my offering of the core conditions to them, to the fullest extent that is moment-to-moment possible, as one human being to another. I welcome them as they are. I welcome myself as I am. However confused, however painful. I can see that this works, and is helpful. After sessions, I too feel better. Healing relationship is inherently healing both ways.
I think Alaina and her therapist are right – extreme experiences are not common to everyone. I have been a deep diver all my life. I know a few others. I work with some. But for many, this seems a foreign country – and we tend to fear the unknown. It’s a short step from fear to disconnecting, making excuses, hanging up the phone. When I was training, years ago, I did an observed session, with several peers and a tutor watching me work. The tutor fed back to me: ‘The thing about you is, you are not afraid of the dark’. Of course, I AM afraid of the dark, in the sense that my own extremes of human experience are (in part) about terror, panic, falling. But I am also in familiar terrain. I am not afraid of accompanying others in their own dark landscapes, because I know my own so well. And, for sure, that makes me a more effective therapist.
I think we do not commonly raise people in this culture, who are able to offer loving, authentic presence in the dark places. We do not teach people how to meet their own pain, or those of others. Many of us are terrified, and have no idea how to be with someone having extreme experiences, inward or outward. My sense is that the conceptualizing of extreme inward experiences as ‘mental illness’ has been profoundly unhelpful in this. It creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’, a sense of ‘otherness’, of the alien, that generates fear and discrimination. How different, to contemplate being with another human being in distress – however intense – compared to the idea of helping someone who is ‘mentally ill’ or has a ‘mental disorder’. Best left to the professionals….
And yet the evidence has been around for years that loving presence in relationship, authenticity and empathy are effective ways to reach someone in the midst of an extreme experience – be that ‘severe depression’ or ‘psychosis’ or ‘schizophrenia’ or any other of the subjectively identified and defined ‘disorders’ that fill DSM. Culturally, we have a lot of learning to do – or perhaps unlearning – about how most usefully to make sense of, or to be with, those experiencing the extremes of what is possible for the human spirit.
I do not make sense of my own landscape as ‘illness’. I see the tendency to insist on this perspective as an unhelpful one, owing energy variously to:-
- the need for an explanation/way of ‘placing’ extreme experience – as if the levels of intensity require some special explanation or category;
- the desire to say ‘this is not my/your fault’, in a culture that has mainstreamed toxic social models of judgement, blame, shame and punishment – so most things are perceived as somebody’s ‘fault’;
- the closely connected desire to say ‘I/you cannot help it’, in a culture that generates the victim mentality;
- a misplaced intention to push back against discriminatory and judgmental cultural attitudes (‘I’m ill, not weak/self-indulgent/mad/bad etc’) – misplaced, because the reality is that the perception of an illness increases fear, discrimination and alienation.
I do not see myself as powerless in my landscape. That is relatively often my experience in the moment. My sense of powerlessness can be overwhelming and intense beyond words – but I have to set that against many, many experiences at other times, of having power. I have learned that I can give myself different experiences – through what I put into and how I treat my body, through meditation, through loving relationship (in or out of a therapeutic context), through conscious dance, through journeying, ritual and ceremony, through connection with the land and our natural world, through activities that foster a sense of purpose and meaning… the list goes on. The fact that there are times when little of this connects for me, does not invalidate it. Carl Rogers’ ‘good life’ is not about consistent presence (let alone feel-good), it is primarily about our intention/attention around bringing ourselves back to presence – to organismic experiencing. This has a momentum, a mass. The more we are able to do it, the more our worlds expand.
I also do not see my landscape as random, or nothing to do with me. My experience as a human being and as a therapist tells me we have good reason for everything – always. It’s not accidental that the urge to kill myself and this place of black despair are part of what is here for me. I can trace the roots back into my distant past. Nor is it my ‘fault’. If you could have my experience, in its entirety, you would see as I see and do as I do….
So I can have some understanding for, and hold gently, the self-destroying voice in my mind that grows loud at certain times. At the same time, there is an element of mystery, a sense in which my own holistic experiencing – just as with those I work with – challenges the limits of words, ideas, categories, definition, human understanding. Increasingly, I have come to believe that we are looking through too partial a window ever to understand – other than through a glass, darkly. I also believe we are not – primarily – here to understand, but rather to have, and share, a human experience.
Thank you to Clare Slaney Counselling and Coaching on Facebook, for drawing Alaina’s piece to my attention.
Lindsey Talbott, Therapist
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter